Three recent events have drawn the attention of global hawk watchers: 1) the potential deployment of the Global Hawk platform to Japan in light of North Korea 2) February’s announcement that Beale would be losing a Global Hawk Support Squadron and 3) the potential cancellation of the Block 40.
In light of these events, I would like to take a moment to look at US global hawk forward deployments around the globe. But first, let’s talk a bit about the world’s largest UAV and its development.
For starters, the Global Hawk, or RQ-4, is a high-altitude long-endurance surveillance UAV developed by Teledyne-Ryan in the mid 1990s. Commissioned by DARPA, the platform has from its inception been capable of an endurance time of over 30 hours in air. Due to its very design and the USAF’s increasing demand for persistent awareness, many thought it would become a U-2 replacement. However, with cancellations being reported since last year for the Block 30–though, currently put on hold–that has yet to be seen.
When talking about the Global Hawks, you’ll often hear them referred to in their respective block designations. Without getting too deep into the details, these designations represent new design changes that are incorporated into the Global Hawks as they come off the production line. However, one shouldn’t get them confused with the two variants, the RQ-4A and RQ-4B. Generally speaking, the initial production of the block 10 falls under the designation of RQ-4A while all subsequent blocks fall under the RQ-4B. Check out the major differences outlined to the left.
There are also a few other designations by which everyone is now familiar relating to mission requirements and changes to the UAV’s payload. These are the RQ-4N built for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program and the EQ-4B hosting the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node. The former is a block 30 Global Hawk designed for the Navy, subsequently re-designated to the MQ-4C, and the latter is a block 20 flown by the USAF to enable communications among various types of datalinks in theater. We’ll talk more about these later.
In terms of development, the first flight of the RQ-4 took place back in November 1998, and was eventually recommended for production by the US Joint Forces Command in September 2000. The platform saw its first real-world mission post 9/11 when it was assigned to the 12th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron operating out of Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE. Once there, the platform conducted surveillance over Afghanistan providing over 15,000 images and over 1,000 hours of FMV. Two years later, Global Hawks (GH) at Al Dhafra were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom conducting surveillance missions over Iraqi airspace, providing over 3,655 images and identifying over 300 tanks, 13 SAM batteries, and associated equipment. During those operations, two GH were reportedly lost: one in Pakistan near Shamsi AB, and the other near Al Dhafra.
After subsequent testing, the RQ-4 reached a significant milestone in 2006. In March, the UAV conducted three 28-hour flights searching known drug-trafficking lines of communication in the Gulf of Mexico. The flights confirmed the UAVs capability to detect and track low-flying aircraft and fast-moving small boats from an altitude of 18,280m (or 60,000 ft), while passing target locations on to US Navy and Coast Guard P-3s. According to press reporting, Global Hawks and Predators continue to fly missions around the Gulf searching for drug production facilities and smuggling routes.
By July, one GH maritime demonstrator first took part in the Rim of the Pacific exercise by flying four missions from Edwards AFB to Hawaii. In doing so, it relayed imagery of a ship-sinking exercise, provided coverage of maritime interdiction operations, as well as target locations utilizing its wide area search and surveillance function.
In the same year, Northrop Grumman announced it would be developing a GH payload to support missile defense. The development of an upward looking airborne IR sensor (or ABIRS) is thought to be in design, planned to augment the Space Tracking Surveillance System program. As far as I know, no RQ-4 have reportedly been deployed with this sensor in an operation; although recent events with North Korea would provide a great opportunity.
Now that a rough overview has been established, let’s look at confirmed forward deployments.
Anderson AFB, Guam
PACOM public affairs videos suggest the Global Hawk first arrived at Guam in 2010. However, it’s quite possible it was there for ad hoc missions after 2007 when the dedicated global hawk aircraft shelter had been completed. After-all, the Navy acquired two RQ-4N demonstrator aircraft in 2005 which were put through the paces later that year in Trident Warrior. Perhaps in further support, aviation enthusiasts from Australia monitoring radio frequencies noted that Global Hawks were touching down at Australia’s RAAF Edinburgh throughout 2001 – 2006.
Such reports may suggest the US had been carrying out secret surveillance operations in the Pacific, although alternatively the platform could have been in Australia for demonstration purposes. Back in 2006, it came to light that the US had been proposing a joint ‘pool’ of GHs to operate out of Guam for East Asia partners including Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea. Although no such plan has been talked about recently, South Korea is pushing forward with GH purchases while Japan’s is currently in the works. The latest news out of Tokyo suggests two or three GH could be inducted by FY 2015.
The last known press release regarding the GH in the Pacific is from January 2011, showing a second GH arriving at Guam. Since then, it is thought additional global hawk may have been deployed to Anderson. A comparison of the aircraft shelters at Beale and those at Guam suggest that four GH and the associated support equipment would fit comfortably in the designated hangar.
Al Dhafra, UAE
Wikileaks among other sources have confirmed the GH’s deployment at Al Dhafra airbase, although technically the military activities out there are still classified. Most often, the unit associated with Al Dhafra, the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, reports they are deployed at an undisclosed base in SW Asia. Regardless, a comparison of handhelds and satellite imagery confirm their deployment at the base.
In addition to the visible 380th platforms–the KC-10 Extender, the E-3 Sentry, and the U-2 Dragon Lady–the satellite imagery from 25MAR11 shows the recent shelter improvements outlined in red which support RQ-4B deployments. Additional shelters were suggested by a site survey team sent out in August 2008, to examine the potential impact of adding additional missions to the base. The two main shelter improvements were necessary due to the larger dimensions of the RQ-4B whose wingspan is nearly 5 meters longer than the original RQ-4A.
Additional self reporting, shows the Navy’s RQ-4N deploying in February 2009 to the base where it’s controlled in conjunction with the air forces already existing Launch and Recovery Element, or LRE. The RQ-4N at Al Dhafra is reportedly piloted from NAS Patuxent River, the Navy’s Test and Evaluation Center.
Other Air Force assets deployed to Al Dhafra include the EQ-4B fielding the BACN module supporting battlefield network and communications in the Afghanistan theater. Two EQ-4B are thought to be working out of Al Dhafra augmenting the orbits with the E-11A platform last noted in Kandahar.
Beyond providing ad hoc support to the war efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an interview with a 380th electrical technician suggested that they had been supporting the RQ-4A out of Al Dhafra regularly since 2003. A review of historical imagery suggests the GH were joining elements of the 380th already deployed to the base in what was at the time, a much smaller footprint. Since then, current aircraft shelters observed on imagery suggest 6 – 8 Global Hawks are deployed to Al Dhafra.
NAS Sigonella, Sicily
Not too much is known about the US Global Hawk deployment at Sigonella outside of their activity in the Libya intervention. Officially, they were moved to the airbase in 2010 along with the GH at Anderson. However other sources (possibly from the base) have suggested they were there at an earlier date. Unfortunately, the prior duration and nature of their deployment is unknown.
That being said, NATO announced that Sigonella would be the main operating base for its future Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) capability which features the RQ-4B as its main platform. Such a move should come as no surprise considering the shifts post Cold War which have seen an importance placed on Italian basing due to the conflicts in the Middle East and north Africa.
Perhaps more telling is the rate in which American military personnel in Europe have increased in Italy, growing from approximately 3 per cent in the 1980s to around 14 per cent today. In fact if we graph the growth over time, we see a precise correlation with conflicts in the Middle East and in the former Yugoslavia. A second boost was also observed in 2004 when the US closed the Naval Forces Europe HQ in London and pivoted to Naples.
Needless to say, this has pushed the United Kingdom out of its number two position, making Italy the second largest host of American forces in Europe after Germany.
As a result of the expansion, Sigonella by extension has also seen further growth. Historical DoD reports show that it had only 500 US personnel in 1990 while today they add up to over 3000.
Such numbers reflect Sigonella’s strategic position whose importance has been mirrored by substantial investment over the years becoming a “critical southern air mobility route for TRANSCOM and an air-bridge to expand operational reach.” In doing so, it currently functions as a major hub for aircraft travelling to SW Asia.
In summation, the deployment of US RQ-4 at this basing location, along with NATO counterparts, may suggest how the alliance has adopted emerging technologies in order to take on additional missions and stay relevant in the 21st century. At the very least, the AGS program demonstrates another way member states have increased burden sharing and the pooling of resources to anticipate potential crisis in nearby neighborhoods.
Going beyond what has been discussed, it is openly known that the Naval version of the Global Hawk will probably deploy outside of current locations, finding additional home bases in Hawaii, Diego Garcia, Florida, and Japan.
When considering all basing options, the Global Hawk will be able to cover the greatest potential conflict zones, as well as important sea lines of communication, particularly maritime choke points. Such a surveillance capability is further bolstered by allied countries who plan to purchase their own models, as alluded to previously, potentially extending US intelligence gathering through regional intelligence sharing agreements.
As a result, increased interoperability among equipment and allies, streamlines the US hub and spoke system, allowing for a lower footprint cost and lower thresholds to increase regional surveillance in some of the world’s most problem areas.
US Domestic Deployment of the Global Hawk include:
Edwards (Air Force Test and Evaluation)
Patuxent River (Navy Test and Evaluation)
Beale (12th Reconnaissance Squadron)
Grand Forks (Second Home Base)
Dryden Flight Research Center (NASA)