The US Air Force does not intend to keep the Block 30 Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk in service past the end of calendar year 2014 because the Lockheed Martin U-2 and other "classified platforms" can take-over its mission, senior service leaders told the US Congress on 17 April. However, service officials acknowledge that it will be hard to convince Congress to go along with the USAF's plans.
"We did not do that without carefully considering how we'd cover that mission with the U-2 and other classified platforms," says Lt Gen Charles Davis, military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisitions. Davis says that further discussions of those classified capabilities would have to be conducted behind closed doors. "There are systems out there that can do this in a variety of different ways," he says.
This is NOT the aircraft in question--this a Lockheed Skunk Works concept for a VTOL UAV.
The USAF would like to use money already appropriated for three additional Global Hawks to help buy back between three and five Lockheed F-35 production aircraft that the service expects it will have to cut later in fiscal year 2013, Davis says. The USAF also hopes to use part of the money to try restoring flying hours for portions of its operational combat aircraft fleet it was forced to ground in recent weeks.
Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says that among the classified platforms in question could potentially be a long-range stealth reconnaissance aircraft that has long been rumored to be flying in the Nevada desert. While it is hard to say for sure, it would make sense for such a platform to have low observable characteristics and have high altitude capability, he says. Given the lack of information, it is difficult to say if such a platform is manned or unmanned, however an unmanned aircraft would have far greater endurance. It could potentially be part of the USAF's long range strike family of systems--which includes a new bomber, cruise missile, electronic attack capabilities and hardware, Aboulafia says.
USAF intelligence chief, Lt Gen Larry James, speaking at an Air Force Association sponsored breakfast on 18 April, declined to comment on what classified platforms might compliment the U-2 to fulfill the Global Hawk's mission. But James did say that in the future the USAF hopes to gather and process intelligence data from "all sources" including satellites, manned and unmanned platforms among others for operations in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment.
For penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the USAF would rely on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor and F-35, James says. But those aircraft cannot yet download the data they gather to the intelligence analysts located at the service's distributed common ground stations. "That's a desire, we don't necessarily have the money to do that right now," James says. "But we're thinking about how do you go after that."