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 3 of 4)
According to Lieutenant Colonel James “Peewee” Wertz, commander of Edwards’ 452nd Test Squadron, Global Hawk pilots have to be military or civilian pilots or air crew members, like weapons officers. Wertz was responsible for testing the completed aircraft and training its pilots until last October, when flight training moved to Beale Air Force Base. Because the aircraft essentially flies itself, training focuses mainly on learning how to manage the aircraft’s systems and how to interact with other players, such as JSTARS and air traffic control. The pilots practice in simulations and live test flights at Edwards. Piloting skills are considered valuable: “There’s still a certain amount of air sense you have to have to be able to manipulate the aircraft,” says Wertz.
Buttoned up and ready to roll for Afghanistan in November 2001, the ground elements, with DAWS installed, hitched rides on Air Force heavy-lift aircraft—the MCE going to an undisclosed site in Germany and the LRE to a base somewhere in the Persian Gulf. At Raytheon, Casey and company were deploying stealthily as well. “We couldn’t tell anyone where we were going,” he says. “My parents had a phone number where they could reach me.” He departed in June 2002 as a member of the second wave of Raytheon engineers headed for the MCE.
The two air vehicles took the high road, flying from Edwards to Australia to the Persian Gulf. While the aircraft was capable of making a nonstop flight, “to do that conveniently you have to fly over certain other countries that might be reluctant to let an unmanned vehicle fly over their airspace,” says Robert Ettinger, Northrop Grumman’s manager of Global Hawk flight testing. Once it arrived and set to work, its operators were taunted by manned-aircraft crews, who called the UAV the “Global Hog” because they thought its ground support infrastructure was excessive. But Walby points out that three U-2s providing 24-hour surveillance needed 157 support personnel, while one Global Hawk achieved the same result with a staff of only 25.
The aircraft operated in Afghanistan from November 11, 2001, to September 28, 2002, flying 60 combat missions totalling 1,200 hours and collecting 17,000 images. DAWS had turned out to be a stellar performer: By the third mission, 80 to 90 percent of the targets were unplanned—“ad hocs”—made possible by DAWS.
Casey returned home in August 2002, having suffered nothing more serious than a case of food poisoning. Some of the Global Hawks weren’t as fortunate: AV-5 crashed while returning to its home base after a rudder control rod broke. AV-4 was sent in as a replacement, but it too crashed before the mission ended in September. According to Ettinger, AV-4 had an engine failure at altitude and was gliding to a landing in what looked like an obstacle-free flat area in Pakistan. Unfortunately, a 100-foot sand dune occupied the space that the maps showed to be clear.
Afghanistan, as it turned out, was just a warm-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which started in early 2003. The Enduring Freedom learning curve in Afghanistan had generated improvements: With its broadband satellite connections now proven, the MCE no longer needed to be located in-theater and was moved to Beale Air Force Base. Also, everyone involved in the “sensor-to-shooter” decision process now had a “chat room,” or instant messaging capability, which proved more useful than traditional telephone lines. In the air over Iraq would be the veteran AV-3, the lone surviving Global Hawk, with a full complement of sensors.
Raytheon’s role in Iraqi Freedom had changed as well: The Air Force wanted the company’s experts to give its officers classroom and on-the-job training during the conflict. With 90 days of “combat” experience using DAWS, Casey was picked to teach the teachers; he spent two weeks at Beale during the initial stages of the Iraq operation. His digs were much nicer on this side of the ocean. “They had CNN. They had e-mail. They had coffee. They had Pop Tarts,” he says.
Once the action started, though, the MCE became the pressure-cooker it resembles. When sandstorms raged in late March, reducing ground visibility to near zero, a JSTARS radar system pierced the sand clouds and picked up troop movement south of Baghdad. In the hours that followed, the Global Hawk team was called in for its most acclaimed mission of the war. According to Air Force Secretary Roche, JSTARS had found a line of troops and equipment moving in, using the sandstorm as cover, to reinforce the much-feared Republican Guard Medina Division. The handoff from the JSTARS to AV-3 allowed analysts connected by satellite and chat links at the Air National Guard’s 152nd Intelligence Squadron in Reno, Nevada, to see through the storm and help the air operations experts in Qatar guide fighter and bomber aircraft with GPS-guided bombs to the scene; the Medina Division was essentially neutralized.