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Dorr: Global Hawk is no prize

Jul. 23, 2013 - 12:47PM   |  
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'When I heard that the Air Force chief of staff presented an award to the Global Hawk 'industry team,' I said, 'This is a joke. This has got to be a joke.''

'When I heard that the Air Force chief of staff presented an award to the Global Hawk 'industry team,' I said, 'This is a joke. This has got to be a joke.''

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“When I heard that the Air Force chief of staff presented an award to the Global Hawk ‘industry team,’ I said, ‘This is a joke. This has got to be a joke.’ ”

The speaker is a recently retired senior officer who knows a lot about the RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk. The officer’s reaction was like mine.

For almost two years, the Air Force has struggled to divest itself of the RQ-4B, which was conceived in more prosperous times, offers some laudable capabilities, but adds only a little to our warfighting prowess today.

Air Force officials didn’t respond to a question whether public funds were used when Gen. Mark Welsh presented the Dr. James G. Roche Sustained Excellence Award on July 7 to prime contractor Northrop Grumman at a ceremony in Ohio. The award is named for a former Air Force secretary who was a vice president at Northrop Grumman.

It’s hard to understand why the Pentagon presents awards to industry. This particular award comes when the Air Force, faced with serious budget cuts, is fighting for dollars merely to continue functioning.

The industry team behind the RQ-4B consists of good people who love our country and believe in what they’re doing.

But appearances matter. The appearance is: We’ve just spent taxpayer dollars to bestow an award while spending more money trying to ditch the vehicle the award recognizes. And although the situation with Global Hawk has improved — operational RQ-4Bs at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, now support the administration’s “pivot” toward the Pacific — the aircraft is expensive to operate and subject to flight restrictions when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Giving prizes to corporations shouldn’t be the business of government. Even though things may have gotten better, it’s especially questionable when we present an award to an aircraft that was “not operationally suitable” according to a 2011 report by the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore. Former Pentagon analyst Winslow Wheeler told me in a July 17 telephone interview the Global Hawk is “one of many vampires sucking money out of the defense budget.”

In a better world, perfect performance by a contractor would be the norm. Far from presenting a prize to one program that meets expectations, we should require all programs to do so. The sad truth is, we live in an era when many military programs suffer delays, cost overruns and technical glitches.

In these financially strapped times, the Air Force shouldn’t participate in any form of award to industry, especially this one.

The Global Hawk offers greater endurance than the aircraft it was meant to replace, the manned U-2 “Dragon Lady,” although it flies more slowly, is more vulnerable to defensive measures, and takes longer to get there. Actual on-station time is about 22 hours. Mission capable rates for the RQ-4B, a measure of reliability, need to improve. In this era of air defense missiles able to reach great altitudes, the RQ-4B can’t fly as high as a U-2.

The Air Force is right to want to put its 18 RQ-4B Block 30s to pasture. Congress should ease its restrictions and allow the Global Hawk to be retired.

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