Air Force Awards Contract To Create More Spy Drones

The Defense Department awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to build more Global Hawk spy drones in a move criticized by some in the Air Force.

Air Force Awards Contract To Create More Spy Drones
U.S. Air Force

It has a wingspan of 131 feet, a range of 8,700 miles, a crew of zero people, and the U.S. Defense Department wants a lot more of them. 

It's the Global Hawk Drone, developed by Northrop Grumman, and it's currently the largest unmanned aircraft in the world. 

But even though Northrop Grumman is a military contractor, the Global Hawk doesn't drop bombs. It's a surveillance plane and can monitor a region for up to 28 hours at a time, giving Americans an information edge on the battlefield. (Video Via Youtube)

CBS News: "The primary mission? To support the troops on the ground and get them imagery they specifically request almost immediately."

And its capabilities extend past the battlefield: NASA owns three, which it uses to monitor wildfires and hurricanes. (Video via YouTube)

But for all their uses, these drones are expensive: In 2013, each one cost $222 million, up from a $35 million estimate in 2005.

The sixfold price increase set off a bitter fight in Washington, with many claiming the drone was both more expensive and less effective than the manned U-2 plane, which made its first flight in 1955 and are made by rival firm Lockheed Martin.

Gen. Mike Hostage of the Air Combat Command put it like this: "The problem is Global Hawk will take eight years before it can meet 90 percent of the current capability of the U-2. [Combatant commanders] are going to suffer for eight years, and the best they’re going to get is 90 percent.”

But if that sounds like a problem to you, you probably don't work at Northrop Grumman, which has lobbied Congress harder than anyone to keep its Global Hawks soaring. 

And so far it seems to be working. The Center for Public Integrity reports a 2013 attempt to mothball the plane was aborted over the wishes of the Air Force Brass by Congress. 

The Air Force seems to have gotten the message. In September, it awarded Northrop a $354 million contract to expand the fleet to 37 planes.

Which means, for better or for worse, the Global Hawks will be soaring above other countries for decades to come. 

This video includes images from Getty Images.