Global Hawk In Tailspin, Maybe

The Air Force's head of acquisition is unhappy with Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk program. David Van Buren held a rare on-the-record briefing with reporters today and said he was "unhappy" with the program at least three times. Van Buren said he was unhappy with the program's approach and achievements on cost. He said he was unhappy with the sensors that go on the aircraft. And he said he was unhappy with the aircraft itself. Oh, and by the way, he said the program takes way too long to submit proposals. How slow can the pace be, you ask? Van Buren said it was "excruciating."

The Air Force’s head of acquisition is unhappy with Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk program. David Van Buren held a rare on-the-record briefing with reporters today and said he was “unhappy” with the program at least three times.

Van Buren said he was unhappy with the program’s approach and achievements on cost. He said he was unhappy with the sensors that go on the aircraft. And he said he was unhappy with the aircraft itself. Oh, and by the way, he said the program takes way too long to submit proposals. How slow can the pace be, you ask? Van Buren said it was “excruciating.”

“Testing and delivery has been slower than expected,” Van Buren said of Block 30 of Global Hawk. “I am not happy with the pace of that program and we are not happy with the cost of the air vehicle.”

While Van Buren’s comments on Global Hawk weaved back and forth between Block 30 and 40 and the overall program, he made very clear he is not happy with the Global Hawk program overall.

A cost review has been ordered and should be ready by late summer, early fall. I asked Van Buren if Northrop Grumman’s program leadership was to blame and he declined to answer, saying he wanted data from the pending review before drawing conclusions about that.

Given how measured and careful Van Buren is, we checked around the building to get some sense of just how bad things are for Global Hawk. We heard from one well-placed source that the program could well be headed for death row unless things improve quickly and substantially.

But a congressional aide who knows the program well said previous efforts to revamp the program have run into serious congressional opposition. “I can’t believe there is anything here they couldn’t fix just by throwing more money at that,” the aide said, predicting long life for Global Hawk in spite of the superb job that the U-2 fleet continues to perform. Global Hawk was supposed to replace the U-2 and the Air Force wanted to retire the aircraft a few years ago. Congress forbade this, and the aide said that was a good thing.

We checked with Northrop Grumman to get their take on this and they offered a detailed rebuttal of much of Van Buren’s comments. Global Hawk spokesman Jim Stratford supplied this:

Northrop Grumman informed the Air Force of overall cost reductions on Global Hawk’s block 20, 30 and 40 systems and the associated payloads, including the enhanced integrated sensor suite (EISS), advanced signals intelligence payload (ASIP) and the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar. While there have been cost spikes within production lots due to the quantity procured within each lot, overall cost of the air vehicle and the sensors is trending down, as the company predicted and expected. Additional cost reductions have been identified by the company and will be evaluated for suitability. Northrop Grumman and its industry teammates have committed to a 60-day turnaround from receipt of RFP to submittal of proposal. We are committed to streamlining the contracting process to expedite Global Hawk deliveries to the warfighter. We are achieving these goals by collaborating closely with the contracting agency at Aeronautical Systems Center and with the strong support of our industry team. Northrop Grumman has addressed with the Air Force the Global Hawk block 10 LRU repair turnaround time. Several initiatives have been implemented to improve repair turnaround time. The sensor supplier has increased work shifts to expedite repairs and recently Northrop Grumman received a contract to develop and implement a dedicated interim repair line to expedite field repairs. In addition, government and contractor personnel are making repairs in theater when appropriate in order to return the system to full operational use as quickly as possible. The increased number repairs is directly attributable to increased use of Global Hawk in theater. Four aircraft – three Air Force and one Navy – are collecting much needed ISR information 7/24. This increased performance exceeds original planned flight profiles for the Air Force program.