With large budget cuts looming in the next decade, top Air Force officials knew last year they needed to halt spending on some large and expensive programs. So they looked for a candidate that was underperforming, had busted its budget, and wasn’t vital to immediate combat needs.
They soon settled on the production line for a $223 million aircraft with the wingspan of a tanker but no pilot in the cockpit, built to fly for a little over a day over vast terrain while sending imagery and other data back to military commanders on the ground. Given the ambitious name “Global Hawk,” the aircraft had cost far more than expected, and was plagued by recurrent operating flaws and maintenance troubles.
“The Block 30 [version of Global Hawk] is not operationally effective,” the Pentagon’s top testing official had declared in a blunt May 2011 report about the drones being assembled by Northrop Grumman in Palmdale, Calif.
Canceling the purchase of new Global Hawks and putting recently-built planes in long-term storage would save $2.5 billion over five years, the service projected. And the drone’s military missions could be picked up by an Air Force stalwart, the U-2 spy plane, which had room for more sensors and could fly higher.
But what happened next was an object lesson in the power of a defense contractor to trump the Pentagon’s own attempts to set the nation’s military spending priorities amid a tough fiscal climate.