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Air Force Retires Old Global Hawk Drones - Upgrades New Ones for Major War

Block 30 Global Hawks were used in Operation Iraqi Freedom

If a high-altitude drone can zoom in to gather ultra high-resolution images across unparalleled distances, network and process new incoming time-sensitive information at great distances beyond or outside of the target reach of advanced enemy air defenses, ground fire or even air-to-air attacks …. It might provide unprecedented added value in a massive, high-threat all out warfare environment and not have its operational use restricted to so-called “permissive” environments. It might generate a unique and much desired operational impact, without necessarily needing to be stealthy.

This kind of thinking aligns with what could be called an interesting two-fold Air Force plans for its Global Hawk drone. There appears to be a dual-trajectory for the platform to include divesting as many as 24 earlier Global Hawks while massively upgrading its newest Block 40 variant. Block 20 and Block 30 Global Hawks are being retired, as they are less advanced than the most modern variant, the Block 40. For example, while Block 30, according to Air Force information, operates with Electro-Optical-Infrared cameras and Synthetic Aperture Radar. Each Global Hawk operates with specifically tailored technologies. Block 40 Global Hawks, which became operational within the last five to six years, is also engineered with a Radar Technology Insertion Program, Active Electronically Scanned Array, SAR and Moving Target Indicator, an advanced sensor which detects and then tracks movement on the ground below.

Block 30 Global Hawks were used in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and often referred to by then Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers as instrumental to Pentagon efforts to pioneer a “fusion” process of sharing information with other key platforms. This operational functionality, used with success in Iraq, could easily be seen as a precursor or even part of the developmental foundation for multi-domain, cross-platform data networking breaking through today.

Air Force & Northrop Grumman Upgrade Block 40 for Pentagon JADC2

Therefore, Global Hawk upgrades pertain to the needed command and control infrastructure essential to bringing the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control effort to fruition, a cutting edge and fast-progressing effort to enable an air-ground-sea-undersea “meshed” networking of interconnected nodes able to transmit organized and time sensitive data across the force in real time. The entire concept, which Global Hawk has been involved with over the years, involves thinking of platforms such as drones and even fighter jets, ships or ground vehicles, not so much as isolated systems connecting point-to-point but rather breaking through to a multi-service, multi-domanforce-wide secure information network.

The Global Hawk circles above hostile terrain searching for enemy targets for up to 40-hours on a single mission, zooming in high fidelity, long-range sensors able to monitor the training, force positioning and weapons activities of potential adversaries. Perhaps of greatest significance, the Air Force Global Hawk finds and transmits time sensitive crucial targeting details, a long-standing technical capability perhaps at least in part explaining why the Air Force is putting more money into upgrading and sustaining its current fleet. These kinds of upgrades might be a key way the Air Force is looking to the future with Global Hawk through enhancements, while retiring older variants. This could free up efforts to further innovate and complete the ongoing transformation of the Global Hawk into a combat platform well-suited for high-threat, major warfare against a technologically advanced adversary.

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The Air Force and Northrop Grumman are also modernizing the Global Hawk with a new ground control station; the new ground station command and control system is intended to pioneer new methods of reducing latency, speeding up attacks, providing a foundation for software upgrades to improve sensing and image resolution and also enabling AI-empowered man-machine interface. Tactically speaking, part of this pertains to accelerating what Northrop developers describe as “ad hoc” tasking wherein new, fast-arriving intelligence information might lead to mission adjustments. Much of this is enabled by increased autonomy and an ability to quickly gather, process, analyze and transmit massive volumes of information in milliseconds by bouncing new data off of a vast database to draw comparisons, perform analyses, solve problems and identify moments of greatest relevance, without needing human intervention. The new drone control system also incorporates new cockpit displays and emerging cyber-hardening technologies.

The Global Hawk circles above hostile terrain searching for enemy targets for up to 40-hours on a single mission, zooming in high fidelity, long-range sensors able to monitor the training, force positioning and weapons activities of potential adversaries. Perhaps of greatest significance, the Air Force Global Hawk finds and transmits time sensitive crucial targeting details, a long-standing technical capability perhaps at least in part explaining why the Air Force is putting more money into upgrading and sustaining its current fleet. These kinds of upgrades might be a key way the Air Force is looking to the future with Global Hawk through enhancements. This could free up efforts to further innovate and complete the ongoing transformation of the Global Hawk into a combat platform well-suited for high-threat, major warfare against a technologically advanced adversary.

Global Hawks, Northrop Grumman developers say, have flown as many as 300,000 operational hours over the last 20 years and, its makers report, will be able to fly and operate well into the 2040s and beyond. The average age of the U.S. Air Force Global Hawk is 8 years. Northrop developers have told The National Interest that being made with composite and metallic materials helps enable the drone to fly for tens of thousands of operational hours.

The rationale behind upgrading and transitioning the Global Hawk for great power warfare is based upon the extent to which technological adjustments can enable a not very stealthy medium-size drone to bring unique and unparalleled advantages and survivability to a “contested” or high-threat warfare scenario.

While a larger platform, its high altitude mission ability, coupled with long-range sensor apertures enable it to conduct high-risk missions in areas where lower altitude drones might be vulnerable to destruction from enemy air defenses or EW. Sensor technology is also changing at what could be called a staggering rate, meaning smaller and smaller hardware systems are increasingly able to massively improve image resolution and greatly extend detection and sensing ranges. The Global Hawk has also provided the technical infrastructure to the now operational maritime variant of the drone, called the Triton. Being configured with specially configured maritime sensors and an ability to change altitude in icy or adverse weather conditions, the Triton is intended to align with and complements Global Hawk surveillance technologies.

- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.