Send in the Global Hawk
In combat trials, the RQ-4A unmanned reconnaissance aircraft showed intelligence analysts what it means to have eyes like a Hawk.
- By John Croft
- Air & Space magazine, January 2005
JOHN CASEY, SYSTEMS ENGINEER, IS AN IMPROBABLE WARRIOR. And yet like many Americans struck by a rush of patriotism in the fall of 2001, he went off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq when the U.S. government asked for his help. “I had no military experience,” he says, “aside from seeing some of my grandfather’s World War II medals.” A Purple Heart is among them.
Casey’s weapon was his engineering knowledge of a Raytheon-built sensor system that captures images from an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the Global Hawk. Northrop Grumman had already delivered a series of Global Hawk prototypes to the Air Force for evaluation. As part of the program to assess their performance in high-altitude reconnaissance, Raytheon was contracted to deliver ground support equipment and the aircraft’s sensors—but not Casey or his co-workers. The evaluation was scheduled to conclude in 2005, and if the Air Force gave a thumbs-up, production Global Hawks would either replace or complement piloted aircraft, like Lockheed’s imaging recon U-2, in monitoring more traditional foes, such as North Korea. Ironically, the program had become mired in uncertainty and budget questions only one day before hijacked airliners were flown into buildings in New York and Washington.
The events of 9/11 changed everything, creating challenges and opportunities for both Casey and the Global Hawk. For Casey, change came in the form of a formal request from Northrop Grumman to Raytheon in the fall of 2001. The Air Force needed help mobilizing the Global Hawk for Operation Enduring Freedom, the multi-national effort to rid Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. In particular, Northrop Grumman wanted Raytheon to find a way to reroute the Global Hawk on a moment’s notice so it could zoom in on targets of interest.
Which was asking a lot. The Global Hawk had been designed to fly a route with the location of targets, the sensors of choice, and the resolution levels for the individual pictures programmed days or months ahead of time; the military calls such planned operation “flying the black line.” But because the aircraft has a 50-megabit-per-second satellite communication link, the ground-based pilot could quickly change the Global Hawk’s course and aim its sensors at a developing situation, and analysts receiving the sensors’ data could suggest targets to commanders, who could send in the shooters within minutes.
The pilots don’t really fly the Global Hawk so much as manage it. The aircraft’s ground station uses computers instead of traditional flight controls, and a flight plan can be executed with a few clicks of a mouse. At the time of Enduring Freedom, the aircraft had some rerouting capability, but the software needed to revise the flight plan and aim the sensors was not in place, nor had the contract called for any.
Raytheon had just the ticket, however. The company had developed for its own use a Data Analysis Workstation, which put the sensors through their paces in the lab and on test flights. DAWS could be beefed up so that the Global Hawk could be redirected on the fly. The upgrade would require software modifications and a new workstation next to the Raytheon-built Mission Control Element, which originally was meant to house a pilot, a mission planning expert, and a communications engineer. The pilot had originally been tasked with managing the aircraft and the sensors in accordance with the black-line mindset; now, the MCE would have a sensor operator to share the workload.
The timeline was tight: Military planners wanted the revised system made combat-ready in 90 days. And they also would need some brave engineers who knew the DAWS inside and out—experts like Casey—to drop everything and take the system into battle as sensor operators.
Though catapulting a flight system from developmental status directly to war-ready standing is unusual, it is not without precedent, and the practice appears to be less of a taboo when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles. Operation Enduring Freedom presented some formidable challenges that required some measured risk-taking. In testimony to Congress in 2003, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche recalled: “We go to General Franks [then commander of the U.S. Central Command]. And we said to him, ‘We have a number of unmanned or unattended aircraft or remotely piloted aircraft that are not ready for prime time. May we employ them in Afghanistan and learn?’ ”