FY-14 O&S costs totaled $898M
Following last week’s release of Air Force cost-per-flight-hour data for the U-2 and Global Hawk, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are trading blows over which high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft is operationally better value despite the service’s decision to delay retiring the U-2 until 2019.
On the one hand, Lockheed claims data showing the unmanned Global Hawk spy plane is 53 percent cheaper to operate per flight hour than the Dragon Lady is not a fair comparison since the manned U-2 collects 33 percent more intelligence data per hour and its sensors have superior range. Northrop, however, contends that the RQ-4’s global reach and significantly lower flight-hour cost make it the aircraft of choice for intelligence collection going forward.
Meanwhile, the Air Force wants to keep both aircraft, but claims it does not have enough money. The service still plans to retire the U-2 fleet and a portion of the RQ-4 fleet if there is no relief from 2011 Budget Control Act spending caps.
The programs produce millions of dollars in annual revenue for Lockheed and Northrop and both companies would prefer if the Defense Department didn’t move their aircraft to the scrap yard.
According to Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, which has managed the U-2 program since its inception, the current U-2S model that was delivered in the 1980s and upgraded in the 1990s has another 35 years of structural life remaining and is not the Cold War relic that some people claim.
According to new Air Force flight-hour data, obtained by Inside the Air Force this week, the cost of operating and supporting the U-2 fleet including the trainer aircraft totaled $535.8 million in FY-14 and flew 16,726 hours compared to the Global Hawk fleet, which cost $362.6 million and flew 24,377 hours. The largest cost difference was in the maintenance category: $328 million for the U-2 compared to $202 million for the RQ-4. Surprisingly, the remotely-piloted Global Hawk had a higher unit personnel cost at $144 million.
Despite the cost difference, Lockheed’s U-2 Business Development Manager J. Scott Winstead said the U-2 is far better at collecting intelligence and is still preferred by the combatant commanders. He said the Dragon Lady flies 25 percent higher and 33 percent faster than the RQ-4. Additionally, FY-14 data shows the U-2 mission success rate was 27 percent higher than the RQ-4 in the U.S. Pacific Command and Northern Command theaters. Both aircraft performed in the top tier in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
“The U-2’s track record of success speaks for itself,” Winstead wrote in a March 4 email. “In FY-14, the U-2 collected twice as many target images as Global Hawk, and did it with nearly half the flying hours.”
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