The cost of a program to build high-profile unmanned surveillance aircraft, known as Global Hawks, has increased by nearly $900 million since 2001, according to a Government Accountability Office report released yesterday.
The Air Force's desire to accelerate production and improve the capability of the aircraft, which has emerged as a star in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has raised the likelihood of further cost increases and delays, according to the report. The high-flying Global Hawks, made by Northrop Grumman Corp., can see through clouds and sandstorms and transmit photos and real-time video to command centers. The Air Force said yesterday that at least one of the planes is assisting in the war on terrorism but declined to identify where.
Northrop Grumman's Global Hawks have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While industry experts have estimated that there are hundreds of drones flying over Iraq, the Defense Department thinks Global Hawk has the "potential to transform military operations," according to the report.
But the estimated overall cost of the Global Hawk program has increased to $6.3 billion from $5.4 billion in 2001, while the number of aircraft the Air Force plans to buy has fallen to 51 from 63, the report said. The aircraft are now expected to cost $123.2 million each, including development costs, compared with a 2001 cost estimate of $85.6 million.
Most of the increased cost is related to the development of a second, heavier version of the unmanned plane with enhanced sensors. The Air Force decided to buy the aircraft before all of the technology has been developed, raising concerns that costs will inevitably increase, the report said. The GAO recommended delaying the purchase of more aircraft, except for those needed for testing, until a new strategy can be developed.
The restructured program has also experienced delays, the report said. As of July 2004, only about 10 percent of the flight testing was completed, according to the report. "Test officials told us that the lack of quality test data is hampering their ability to provide meaningful oversight," the report said.
The Air Force rejected the GAO's recommendations, noting that a delay could cost an additional $400 million and that the risks are being adequately managed. "Not included in this rough estimate is the likely catastrophic financial impact to small business vendors and subcontractors, and costs to mothball and restart production facilities," Glenn F. Lamartin, director of defense systems, said in the Pentagon's response included in the report. A Northrop spokesman declined to comment.