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Global Hawk Operations in the Spotlight at AUVSI North America 2011

This week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) North America 2011 (August 16 – 19, Washington D.C. Convention Center) is providing multiple venues for both government and industry to update recent activities surrounding the spectrum of unmanned air, ground, surface, and underwater vehicles.

As an example, opening day conference briefings included a “Global Hawk Enterprise Update” by Bill Walker, business development manager for the Global Hawk program at Northrop Grumman. Walker’s briefing included information on both disaster relief and combat missions flown by Global Hawks during 2011.

Referring to a “curve” of increasing program activity over the past few years, Walker noted, “It got a lot steeper in 2011, as we started deploying the Block 30 to Guam and to [Naval Air Station] Sigonella [Sicily] and to the Persian Gulf area. We were able to bring the first airplane into Grand Forks Air Force Base. We had the first EuroHawk delivered to Germany. And the flying hours have increased significantly. In fact, at the beginning of this month we went over 61,000 flying hours total for the program. And 87 percent of that was ‘combat time.’ It doesn’t count all the long flight hours that were used for training or disaster responses – but combat time.”

Euro Hawk shown during its ferry flight to Germany

The first Euro Hawk was delivered this year, and is shown here during the ferry flight to Germany. Northrop Grumman photo

The Block 30 aircraft are the latest fielded models of the military component of the (RQ-4 series) Global Hawk “Q4 Enterprise.” That military component encompasses Block 10, Block 20, Navy BAMS-D [Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator], Block 30, and Block 40 (still in test) aircraft.

“Block 10 has been an operational capability since January 2006,” Walker said. “It flew about 35,000 hours until the Air Force retired all of those aircraft in May of this year.”

While the Air Force may have “retired” its Block 10 aircraft, the platforms still have significant life, leading to NASA taking two of the aircraft and the Navy taking three. Those three Navy aircraft will soon expand the service’s BAMS-D fleet, which currently includes two aircraft procured in 2002 that have been flown in the Persian Gulf region since 2006.

“By gaining three additional aircraft, that allows [the Navy] to expand their operations,” Walker observed. “They have painted those airplanes in Navy colors now and with next year’s budget they will be using those aircraft.”

Although the Block 20 aircraft were originally delivered as an interim capability to provide training aircraft for Air Force pilots, Walker said that two of the platforms “were converted late last year into a communications relay capability, called BACN [Battlefield Airborne Communications Node] and those airplanes deployed last fall. They have been providing almost continuous coverage for Central Command.”

The Navy's BAMS, shown in an artist's impression

The Global Hawk is the platform for the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstration (BAMS-D) program. Some older Air Force airframes have been brought into the Navy fold for development and actual operations. Northrop Grumman image

Referring to the recent Block 30 fieldings to Guam, Sigonella and CENTCOM, he explained, “[Block 30] has provided capability that wasn’t really expected. It is flying more that the Air Force had expected to fly it this first year.”

“Block 40 is in test,” he added. “It has completed its airworthiness phase of development and has gone into its phase II of testing where they verify the performance that the MP-RTIP sensor [AN/ZPY-2 Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program] showed on the Proteus aircraft, which was a manned surrogate for the Global Hawk.”

Walker shifted briefing focus to the tempo of activities during the 45-day period from March 1 – April 14, 2011, with Block 30 aircraft performing initial operations in support of AFRICOM (Three Block 30 aircraft in support of Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector) and PACOM (Three Block 30 aircraft flying in support of Operation Tomodachi) at the same time that BAMS-D, Block 20 BACN and pre-retirement Block 10 aircraft were flying missions in support of CENTCOM. That 45-day period saw Global Hawk platforms accumulate total 335.5 flight hours supporting AFRICOM, 480.8 hours supporting PACOM and 1,614.6 hours supporting CENTCOM.

“It was the first aircraft that flew into a nuclear environment,” he said. “What I mean is that the Global Hawk was used to monitor the status of the nuclear power plants in Japan. Now they are flying out of Guam and they wanted to have continuous coverage over Japan. That’s a long way – 6 ½ hours flying – yet the Air Force was able to launch sequential aircraft from Guam to have continuous coverage over Japan during the short time period when there was a threat with the nuclear power plant.”

He added, “Each mission was able to cover with very high resolution imagery over a very large area – the entire disaster area – many times during a single sortie. So the U.S. Air Force was providing updates to the Japanese government continuously throughout that time period.”

“During the Libya operation it was the first time that multiple aspects of the sensor were used to cue things that were moving and then, once they stopped, identify and target them,” he said. “Global Hawk was the first airplane on station in the Air Tasking Order – the ATO – so as to provide targeting information for the coalition forces, the [NATO] forces. That was important because it gave not just targeting information but also situational awareness to the coalition forces. And then the aircraft continued to fly out of Sigonella to provide support throughout the operation in Libya.”

The Block 30 replaced the Block 10 aircraft in CENTCOM during the April-May timeframe.

Among his future projections, Walker pointed to a recent Global Hawk request from Korea to the U.S. government, noting, “That letter of acceptance of their offer should be coming out within the next few months. You can be watching for release on that. And you’ll also see that there will be some new capabilities announced over the next six months with the Global Hawk.”


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...