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
(Page 2 of 4)
For the Global Hawk, early fielding looked like it might be worth the risk. When planners studied the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance plans for Afghanistan—taking into account the availability of aircraft like the U-2, the Rivet Joint electronic surveillance and warfare aircraft, and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (better known as JSTARS), which monitors ground movement—they realized they would come up short for 24-hour, all-weather operations. The goal was seamless surveillance of the ground. Could the Global Hawk help? It certainly had the endurance.
In April 2001, Air Vehicle 5 (AV-5), the fifth of seven Global Hawk prototypes, became the first unmanned powered aircraft to cross the Pacific, flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Adelaide, Australia, on its way to participate in exercises with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force and Navy. The 7,500-nautical-mile transit set several world records and was eclipsed only by the Global Hawk’s performance in the May and June exercises: Over a period of six weeks, the aircraft flew 13 out of 14 planned exercises, a total of nearly 10 days aloft, with some flights lasting more than a day.
The trip also gave planners the chance to try breaking out of the black-line box: Small civilian vessels under way in the area of operations served as unplanned targets that the aircraft was able to detect, track, and image. “We got a glimpse of how to interact with a pop-up target,” says Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman’s director of Global Hawk new business. Walby, a former Air Force colonel, is no stranger to high-altitude reconnaissance. In the mid-1990s, the U-2 pilot served as commander of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base in California. Walby says that in those days, he and his fellow pilots would “pop the champagne” every time a UAV “screwed up.” He told Air Force News at the time that he saw UAVs eventually complementing U-2s and other reconnaissance aircraft, “but not in the near future.” As commander of the Global Hawk detachment during the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, Walby would have a change of heart.
The Global Hawk’s performance and endurance in Australia matched what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had in mind when in the early 1990s it launched the Tier II+ program, seeking a contractor that could build an unmanned aircraft with 24-hour endurance and an ability to operate at 65,000 feet, about 12 miles high and well above most light surface-to-air missiles, while collecting data with electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic-aperture-radar sensors. In 1995, having studied 14 proposals, DARPA selected the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical Global Hawk. (Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical in 1999.) The first flight of AV-1 took place at Edwards Air Force Base on February 28, 1998, after which the program shifted from DARPA to the Air Force; the program was managed by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio. Then problems crept in: AV-2 was destroyed on a test flight at Edwards after operators sent an incorrect command, and AV-3 was damaged after a software bug boosted the taxi speed to 178 mph instead of a placid 7 mph. AV-3 was fixed, and it returned to service in 2000 along with its new siblings, AV-4 and AV-5. The aircraft’s first major cross-country flight took place that year, when AV-4 flew from Edwards to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, then across the Atlantic to Portugal to support Operation Linked Seas, a NATO naval exercise, and two joint U.S. exercises involving a carrier battle group and Marine Corps expeditionary force. A year after Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, Global Hawk production moved from San Diego to Palmdale, California.
The Global Hawk is the latest in an increasingly complex lineage of aircraft that started with munitions delivery (carrying bombs), evolved into reconnaissance platforms, and now do both. U.S. experiments with UAVs in the 1940s included a project called Operation Aphrodite, which aimed to turn heavy bombers into unmanned radio-controlled missiles carrying tons of explosives. During the Vietnam War, Teledyne Ryan Firebee unmanned aircraft flew more than 3,400 missions providing reconnaissance, night photography, communications, electronic intelligence, leaflet dropping, and detection of SAM radar sites. During Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991, the Navy and Marine Corps used Hunter and Pioneer UAVs, both derivatives of an Israeli system, to transmit battlefield images and help the Navy direct the 16-inch guns on the battleships USS Wisconsin and Missouri. Having seen the value of unmanned systems, the military funded advanced technology projects that produced the propeller-driven mid-altitude Predator and jet-powered high-altitude Global Hawk.
Air Force intelligence officials had concerns that the Global Hawk would actually provide too much data, swamping analysts with information and defocusing the effort. In a meeting on September 10, 2001, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, there had been “turmoil” as to what direction the program should take, according to Ed Walby. It didn’t help that the Pentagon’s 2003 budget at the time had no funding for the program. The confusion didn’t last long; the events of the following day upended priority lists. General John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, gave the go-ahead to deploy the Global Hawk for the Afghanistan campaign. Once that decision was made, doubts were replaced by adrenaline. At Edwards Air Force Base, where Global Hawks arrive from Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale assembly plant and are married to Raytheon sensors and tested with their transportable ground stations, engineers and technicians readied AV-3 and AV-5 for trips to the Persian Gulf, the launching point for missions over Afghanistan. At the same time, Raytheon engineers were rushing to ready the DAWS and a sensor operation workstation.
The Mission Control Element is a no-nonsense eight- by eight- by 24-foot windowless metal container with four workstations and room for a few observers. It was originally meant to be deployed by transport aircraft to a site near the action, but not too close. Along with a workstation for the pilot and a mission planning computer, the MCE has satellite and traditional radio communications. It also holds equipment that decompresses images downlinked from the Global Hawk and assembles them into mosaics, which are then transmitted to military analysts. The Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), an eight- by eight- by 10-foot container, is set up next to the vehicle’s takeoff and landing site and manned by two operators and a mission director. Its equipment duplicates that of the MCE but adds a very precise differential GPS system, which refines the satellite navigation signals Global Hawk needs to taxi, take off, and land.
What these ground stations lack in aesthetics, the aircraft more than makes up for: The size of a business jet, the aircraft is oddly awkward and yet graceful, with its bulging fuselage and glider-like wings. It can carry a 2,000-pound payload aloft for up to 35 hours. The wings, built by Vought Aircraft Industries, are made of composite materials, as is the V-tail, built by Aurora Flight Sciences. The aluminum fuselage, built by Northrop Grumman, has pressurized compartments for the sensor packages and carries a single Rolls-Royce AE 3007H turbofan engine above the tail; two similar engines power the Cessna Citation X business jet (which coincidentally costs about the same as a Global Hawk sans ground elements and sensors—about $19 million). Mounted near the nose is Raytheon’s side-looking X-band (the same wavelength as the weather radar on small jets) synthetic aperture radar, which can image single locations or track moving targets on the ground—the sensor of choice in bad weather, particularly sand storms in Iraq. The radar combines several snapshots of the ground to form a single higher-resolution image, thereby creating a virtual antenna—or “synthetic aperture”—many times larger than its actual antenna. Under the nose is the electro-optical camera, designed around charge-coupled devices similar to CCDs in video cameras; combined with it is a thermal imaging sensor—the instrument most suitable for finding people in mountainous areas, like Afghanistan.