Critical flight tests of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle could be "cancelled or cut back" early next year, potentially increasing pressure on a programme already at unusual risk of schedule delays and cost overruns, a new US government report warns.
The high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk has been hailed for its contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002, but the small fleet has only begun a testing regimen required for future acquisition milestones. Phase one of a combined development and operational assessment started in July, but has gone off-track with a planned two-month testing phase now stretched until March 2005.
At that point, a phase two operational assessment is to begin, but could be scrapped. "Test officials believe the operational assessment is in jeopardy of being cancelled or cut back in order to start the dedicated initial operational test and evaluation on time," says a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on 6 December.
The USAF's aggressive acquisition strategy for the Global Hawk has also increased pressure on the programme. A two-year-old restructuring forces programme officials to make key decisions before several critical technologies are mature enough to be reliable, says the GAO, which informs Congress on federal spending programmes.
The report urges the air force to slow down and "revisit" a decision to concurrently develop and produce the larger RQ-4B, and delay production until a new business case for the programme can be developed.
Stephen Trimble / Washington DC