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.

The RQ-5 Hunter filled the services' UAV role in the '90s and since March 2003 has supported coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (USAF)
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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.

When AV-3 returned to Edwards on May 5, 2003, the mission success symbols painted on its nose didn’t quite trumpet what the team had accomplished in only eight weeks. AV-3 alone identified 55 percent of the time-sensitive targets and led to significant destruction of Iraqi air defense equipment. It located 13 complete SAM batteries, more than 50 SAM launchers, 300 SAM canisters, and more than 70 SAM transporters. And it provided the intelligence that led to the destruction of more than 300 tanks—38 percent of Iraq’s known armored force.

While Casey is once again manning a computer at Raytheon, AV-3 continues to scour the mountains of Afghanistan, having gotten another call to duty in March for Operation Mountain Storm. Walby says its toolbox continues to grow, the latest addition being Advanced Information Architecture. With AIA, soldiers with laptops or personal digital assistants—PDAs—can use the secure chat room or a radio link to request imagery from the Global Hawk pilot, who can respond by downlinking digital maps stored in the aircraft’s 1.4-terabyte server. “It works precisely like [the Internet’s] MapQuest,” says Walby.

Managers of the Global Hawk believe the program has found its footing. The three prototypes based Stateside are completing the aircraft’s long-postponed flight test program at Edwards, while five Air Force and two Navy production models are being built in Palmdale. An upgraded version with a 3,000-pound payload capacity and longer wings (130.9 feet) is also in the works, with deliveries starting next year. The Air Force alone has ordered 51 aircraft. The number could grow as other government agencies and countries, such as Australia and Germany, consider purchases. The company hopes to highlight the Global Hawk’s achievements by flying the aircraft to next year’s Paris Air Show, retracing the 1927 route Charles Lindbergh flew in his Ryan-built Spirit of St. Louis.

As for Casey, he’s moved on to other programs at Raytheon, satisfied in part because he’s served his country. He also has his own bits of war memorabilia, his favorite being a very small metal pin that was carried aloft in a Global Hawk during Operation Enduring Freedom. On it is an image of an American flag.

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