A universal payload adaptor would allow the RQ-4 to carry approximately 3,000-4,000 lbs (1360-1814 kg) of sensors
Critical U-2 sensors weigh approximately 1,500 lbs (680 kg)
Northrop Grumman has nearly completed integration of key sensors carried by the US Air Force's (USAF's) Lockheed Martin U-2 manned reconnaissance aircraft onto its RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the defence technology company's manager for the effort told IHS Jane's on 29 April.
The company is self-funding the construction of a "universal payload adaptor", a metal grid that will be attached to the underside of the Global Hawk to allow it to carry the Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System-2B/C and the Optical Bar Camera, said Mick Jaggers, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk director and programme manager.
"That grid allows you to bolt on any of these sensors without restructuring the aircraft," said Jaggers. He said the universal payload adaptor (UPA) can carry approximately 3,000-4,000 lbs (1360-1814 kg) of payload. The U-2's SYERS and Optical Bar Camera weigh about 1,500 lbs (680 kg) combined.
The USAF is providing two Global Hawks and sensors to allow Northrop Grumman to perform flight tests of the UPA in November. Successful tests would allow for UPA integration onto the entire fleet. "Then you can put any sensor on any Global Hawk," Jaggers said.
The Pentagon wants to retire the U-2 and other ageing manned platforms in favour of UAVs to save money. Service officials have argued that they can afford only one high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. They have wavered over which aircraft to keep, but are currently pursuing the U-2 divestment and RQ-4 upgrades.
The USAF recently told Congress that integration of U-2 sensors aboard Global Hawk was technically possible but that it was still determining the cost of such a project. Senior air force officials have previously said that Global Hawk still needed nearly USD2 billion in upgrades to reach parity with U-2 capabilities.
However, Jaggers said Northrop Grumman would likely be able to provide the UPA retrofit to the fleet, as well as upgrades to ground and communications systems for less than USD1 billion. "Once we prove this out in November … it's just a matter of making more UPAs," he said.