House lawmakers repeatedly slammed the Air Force’s proposal to cancel a variant of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft yesterday, suggesting a powerful committee could attempt to tweak the plan.

House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) kicked off his committee’s annual Air Force posture hearing yesterday by quizzing service leaders about their attempt in the fiscal year 2013 budget to kill the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft program. Pentagon officials maintain the variant of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] drones will rise in the coming years and they can save money by extending their use of the comparable but aging manned U-2 spy plane.

McKeon and other HASC members noted that just eight months ago the Pentagon certified the need for the Global Hawk Block 30 to Congress, something it had to do under the Nunn-McCurdy law because the cost of the drone rose. The Pentagon said in that certification that the Northrop Grumman aircraft’s continuation was essential to national security, no alternatives provide acceptable capability, and the U-2 would cost $220 million per year more than the Global Hawk Block 30 to operate.

“Isn’t this a short-sighted decision to favor near-term savings over long-term capability and cost?” McKeon asked Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

Schwartz maintained the Block 30 decision was made for multiple reasons, with one being that the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) “reduced the demand signal” for high-altitude signals intelligence. He said he couldn’t “go into explicit detail here” during the open hearing on the sensitive information.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, for his part, said the Nunn-McCurdy review measured the Global Hawk Block 30’s cost and capability–including its persistence–against the U-2’s. “We understood, and we still understand, that the Global Hawk offers persistence that the U-2 does not have,” he said. However, after the Nunn-McCurdy review, the JROC adjusted the Pentagon-wide requirements for high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, he noted.

“After they adjusted those requirements, they then went back and looked at the existing fleets and capabilities, and we said can we live with the U-2 capability that we have,” Donley said, saying those older aircraft can be used through 2040.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), one of several HASC members who criticized the Global Haw Block 30 axing, said he wants to see details on the cost of upgrading and supporting U-2s.

Schwartz repeated additional justifications for the drone cancellation, including that its operating cost and the U-2’s are similar. The Air Force determined the U-2’s sensor capability was better than the Global Hawk Block 30’s, which would need costly improvements, he reiterated.

Schwartz said he “acknowledge(s)” the pro-Global Hawk information in the Nunn-McCurdy certification from last year, but reminded the HASC “that occurred prior to the Budget Control Act and its implications in terms of resources for our Air Force.” The deficit-cutting law that Congress and the White House approved last August cuts planned Pentagon spending by at least $487 billion over the next decade.

The Air Force chief further defended the U-2, saying over the decades it “has been improved and modified and continues to be modified as we speak.”

“It was our judgment that given the demand signal, the sensor capability, and the relative modest-if-any cost differential, that sustaining the U-2 was a better bet,” Schwartz said.

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) pressed Schwartz and Donley on why the Air Force wouldn’t invest now in the Global Hawk Block 30, considering the military is likely going to pursue unmanned surveillance aircraft like it in the future.

Schwartz replied that if “resources were not an issue or were less an issue we might well make a strategic decision along those lines.”

“But we did not have that option,” he added, saying keeping the U-2 versus terminating the Global Hawk Block 30 is projected to yield $2.5 billion in savings.

Congress has appropriated $4 billion for buying 21 of the drones, and 14 have been built. Schwartz said those aircraft will be put in “recoverable storage.”

“So we’re not talking about breaking the birds up,” he said. “We want to be able to have access to them. And as circumstances change, perhaps there’ll be a time when they come back out of storage.”

Northrop Grumman has pledged to fight the Block 30 termination. Lawmakers who support the company’s plight include House Appropriations Defense subcommittee (HAC-D) Chairman C.W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.), HAC-D member Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), and Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

The Air Force still plans to buy the Global Hawk Block 20 and Block 40 variants.