US Air Force Drops Sensor Improvements on New Global Hawks

November 21, 2013

The US Air Force will not buy a “universal payload adapter” to attach sensors from the U-2 to a variant of the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk, another sign that the service is not interested in keeping the brand-new planes in the sky.

The Block 30 variant of the Global Hawk, a massive unmanned aircraft designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, has been repeatedly targeted for cuts by the Air Force. The service planned to move the aircraft straight from the production line to the boneyard in 2013, but that move was blocked by Congress.

The Block 30’s sensor suite is not as capable as the U-2, and Global Hawk builder Northrop Grumman has been designing an adapter to attach the superior system to the unmanned aircraft. The Air Force, however, does not intend to use the adapter, said Maj. Ryan Simms, the chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and remotely pilot aircraft policy in the headquarters Air Force executive action group.

Northrop Grumman officials said earlier this year that they are working through internal research and development on the adapter. Tom Vice, head of Northrop’s Aerospace Systems sector, told reporters in August that it was a “mature technology.”

The Air Force called the adapter “feasible,” and said it would cost about $487 million. It would take three years to develop and test, followed by another two years of production, according to an April report sent to congressional defense committees.

The adapter would attach the Optical Bar Camera or Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System-2b sensors, in addition to Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload.

Simms told Air Force Times on Tuesday that budget restrictions will prevent the service from moving forward with the adapter.

Despite their uncertain future, Block 30s are currently flying humanitarian aid and military missions, Simms said. One Global Hawk in the Philippines has flown 50 hours and taken 300 pictures, he said.

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