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Aerospace Daily January 8, 2002

Global Hawk crash unlikely to hurt program

By Jefferson Morris

The Dec. 30 crash of an Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during routine operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom shouldn't have any adverse effect on the program, according to some military analysts.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said he believes the crash, while embarrassing, will "probably not" result in any programmatic changes.

"I think that Global Hawk is basically early enough in the program that you would expect the problems that they have been having," Pike told The DAILY.

While he expects that a review of Global Hawk may ensue, "it [still] meets a validated requirement, and I think UAVs generally are coming out looking pretty good here, even if Global Hawk crashed," Pike said. "I think that UAVs generally have top-level blessing from this administration, and a program would have to be in serious trouble not to benefit from that blessing," he added.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group, also believes the effect of the crash on the program will prove to be "not much, because right now the program is extremely minimal. Everyone loves talking about Global Hawk, but we don't even see a fraction of the numbers associated with, say, TACAIR [tactical aircraft]."

Data recorders recovered

Not all of the $ 31 million autonomous surveillance platform was destroyed in the crash (DAILY, Jan. 3), according to Air Force spokesman Capt. Joe Della Vedova.

"We've been able to recover some data recorders, and navigational devices," Della Vedova told The DAILY. "In the next couple of weeks, there's going to be an investigation to determine exactly what the cause was."

The Global Hawk was in its landing sequence when a control surface malfunction occurred, followed by a data link break, Aerospace Daily affiliate Aviation Week reported. When communications were re-established, the aircraft was already in a flat spin as part of a self-destruct program.

The Air Force has so far received five Global Hawks from manufacturer Northrop Grumman, with a sixth scheduled for delivery next month. Of the five, two have now been destroyed or heavily damaged in accidents, two remain at Edwards Air Force Base in California and one is still supporting operations in Afghanistan.

Limited role

Despite the media attention, Pike doesn't get the sense that Global Hawk "was doing an awful lot over there to begin with," he said. "Much of what you're doing off of Global Hawk you would either be able to do with the Predator or the U-2. So I think that the crash will probably turn out to be a momentary embarrassment.

"I think that the big problem that the Global Hawk program managers had was just persuading people to let them go play," he continued. "I think there was certainly an interest on part to be able to stamp it 'combat proven.' Being able to claim that certainly did wonders for JSTARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System]."

Despite the apparent enthusiasm over Global Hawk, Aboulafia is skeptical about the real impact that it, or UAVs in general, will have on modern warfare in the near future.

"[Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller] Dov Zakheim pointed to the acquisition of two of them as 'transformational,'" he said. "No doubt if it was procured, deployed, and used in sufficient numbers, it could very well be transformational, but it's not. What we've basically done is reinvent a safer and somewhat more capable U-2. That's great, but it's not going to change the face of modern warfare."

While operations in Afghanistan have probably given UAVs "a boost ... you could [also] argue that the Afghan war reinforces the illusion of invulnerability for pilots. You could make an argument that the manned aircraft has been given a new lease on life.

"The image of manned platforms roaming the countryside doing as they please, with very little fear of those [Stinger missiles] that we'd thought about, is a powerful image, just like UAVs," he said.

Copyright 2002 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.