A Cold War Spy Plane Just Killed Its Robot Drone Replacement

The Lockheed U-2 was designed to keep tabs on the Soviet Union over half a century ago. The RQ-4 Global Hawk drone was designed to replace this 50s antique. But how strange you are, fate! The U-2's replacing its successor.

Reuters reports the Air Force is scrapping the Global Hawk program — which cost the US around $US13 billion and ran far over budget (surprise!), in favour of keeping the U-2 flying into 2020. The Global Hawk is a hell of a machine, capable of sweeping the ground from 60,000 feet in the air — for an entire day at a time — with infrared sensors, picking out things to later blow up and eavesdropping on chatter.

But it didn't work that well. The NYT says the Pentagon showed the drone had serious shortcomings compared to its vintage predecessor:

The new Air Force model was not reliable enough to provide sustained surveillance. Parts failed frequently, and the equipment for intercepting telephone and radio conversations, a vital requirement for replacing the U-2, had trouble pinpointing the source of the calls.

That questionable spying didn't come cheap — over $US200 million for each drone, compared to around a tenth of that for a manned U-2. Add in serious military budget cuts, and you've got yourself an easy deathblow to deal.

But wait, aren't drones supposed to be the future? Yes — which is why this is a little jarring. As mentioned, the U-2 dates back to an era when the White House was terrified of Moscow. A lot's changed since then. Robots rule the battlefield, and that's never turning otherwise. There might be a culture of airmen who feel threatened by the futuristic tide — the RQ-4 just graduated its first class of pilots with no aeroplane experience, ever — but it's a futile recalcitrance. The drones will win, just as soon as we can afford them. And, you know, they work better than planes from when Elvis was 20. [Reuters, NYT]


    yeh, machines are so the future and I still can't get a toaster that gives me consistent toast.

      That's because they spend 13bil on a failed project instead of putting it into toaster technology.

        I bet we could solve world peace with some good toast. A $13 billion toaster research and subsidisation program would be awesome.

    Amazing! Just a shame the Habu didn't have the same life-span

    There must be an alternative use for the bloody things? Seems silly to not use them for a different mission objective!

      It's not that the spying bits don't work; the drone isn't reliable. Using an unreliable state-of-the-art drone is far more expensive than just using any other drone they have right now, so scrapping it is the best option.

    This isn't about capability or reliability, it's about cost. Global Hawks cost 30 million apiece, U-2s are already paid for. The U-2s cost a lot to maintain because they are old, but if the Global Hawks are also costing a lot to maintain because they are underdeveloped, then it's a lot cheaper to stick with the U-2s for now. The US navy will be pissed off because their global hawks will cost more now without the Air Force sharing the cost.

    At least the U-2s don't go down when someone hacks their GPS! (And if they do, they can manually destroy the secret stuff) ;)

    They cancelled the Block 30 variant.

    The US Navy is still going to keep their Globak Hawk variant, the USAF is also buying newer versions.

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