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“Insatiable” is the word U.S. military leaders have used for years to describe the Pentagon’s appetite for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), as the demand for organized, processed, time-sensitive data to be transmitted in operations continues to grow.
Surveillance overall, ranging from manned spy aircraft, sub-hunting helicopters and drones of all shapes, sizes and altitudes, is widely regarded as that key “margin of difference” when it comes to making the wartime decisions necessary to prevail.
This includes speeds and reach, which is why the demand for surveillance drones from the U.S. and its Pacific allies in that region seems limitless, particularly because countries such as Japan, Australia, India and even Taiwan are taking fast steps to improve ISR and networking connectivity with the U.S.
The Pacific is so vast, that Combatant Commanders regularly call for more surveillance assets and increasingly pursue new avenues to enable secure interoperability and data transmission among U.S. allies in the region.
This demand, increased by the well documented pace of Chinese Naval military expansion and modernization, may explain why Japan is acquiring high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk drones.
Global Hawk Drones
Global Hawks have been flying in combat for many years, yet consistently upgraded with improved sensors, ranges, fuel efficiency and endurance capacity. As High Altitude, Long-Endurance platforms, unmanned Global Hawks can often linger above the range of enemy detection, yet zoom in closely with high resolution cameras to track enemy activity below.
The Global Hawk has also worked as a “node” within a greater integrated combat network for many years.
In fact former Vice Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Meyers was likely well ahead of the curve during Operation Iraqi Freedom nearly 20 years ago when he referred to the Global Hawk as key to what he called “fusion.”
While Meyers referred to this as a process of linking Global Hawks with other air and ground surveillance assets such as the JSTARS (E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), he was ahead of his time when it comes to anticipating the extent to which the speed of shared and “processed” information is likely to determine victory in war.
Information “Fusion,” coupled with analysis and rapid, secure transmission, is now known as a potentially unprecedented developmental priority.
Given these advantages, some are likely to wonder why the Air Force is moving to retire large portions of its fleet of Block 30 Global Hawk drones.
According to Air Force information, Global Hawks operate 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.
The Air Force and Northrop Grumman have also been 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 Grumman developers describe as “ad hoc” tasking wherein new, fast-arriving information might lead to mission adjustments.
Some retiring Global Hawk Block 20s will not go to the boneyard but rather go to Grand Forks Air Base, N.D., to function as range hawks for hypersonic missile testing through DoD’s Sky Range program through its Test Resource Management Center.
Global Hawks Can Survive in Great Power Warfare
The Air Force is planning to retire many of its most modern Global Hawk Block 30 drones, most of which are less than 10 years old. Senior Air Force leaders have articulated a few strategic concepts which might inform this equation, such as the extent to which less-stealthy, large surveillance assets are expected to be seriously challenged by advanced, great-power air defenses.
In short, are they survivable enough to withstand a high-threat, contested environment?
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Iran, for instance, is known to have shot down a U.S. Global Hawk in 2019 with surface to air missiles. While details regarding threat adjustments are often not available for security reasons, it certainly seems possible that the U.S. has been able to make survivability adjustments such as adopting new countermeasures or shifting tactics.
On this question, there are several pressing factors which might linger beneath the collective radar of consideration. Senior Air Force leaders have for many years talked about the importance of making certain tactical adjustments with larger drone operations to include things such as being less predictable in flight path, varying course trajectory and continue to leverage the improved performance of surveillance cameras on the Global Hawk at high altitudes.
Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, Commander of U.S. Air Force Europe has, for instance, talked specifically about methods of improving the survivability of larger drones by, among other things, becoming “less predictable.”
This being said, it appears the Air Force is moving to retire even some of the newest and most upgraded Global Hawks to make way for future investments. This idea, should it come to fruition, might not only leave a performance gap in an already “surveillance starved” force, but miss the forest for the trees a little when it comes to the value added of expanded high-altitude surveillance.
By adjusting tactics to become more survivable, and flying at altitudes less vulnerable to enemy air defenses, larger, less-stealthy drones like the Global Hawk seem quite capable of adding unique value to the high-end, or “contested” fight.
Even if a Global Hawk is more vulnerable to a degree, certainly when compared with stealthy aircraft, it is unmanned and therefore not something that would put pilots at risk.
U-2 surveillance planes, by contrast, are manned and therefore introduce dangers to the force which drones do not. There is also an endurance question, meaning large drones like the Global Hawk can operate for up to 34 hours without needing to change out a crew.
Global Hawks & Allies to Confront Chinese Threat
The current Chinese threat in the Pacific may inspire U.S. allies in the region to acquire more high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance assets to cover the expansive ocean areas with the necessary electronic “persistent stare” from the sky.
Japan has already purchased three Global Hawks, and given its commitment to military expansion, it seems conceivable they might greatly benefit from picking up more.
South Korea has acquired four Global Hawks, and Northrop Grumman developers say both Korea and Japan have the requisite ground station command and control equipment to leverage their presence.
There is yet another dynamic of great relevance when it comes to the potential addition of more high altitude drones in the Pacific, as they can increasingly “network” to one another.
The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, a fast-evolving contributor to the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program to connect the joint force, has had success with securely networking otherwise disparate nodes or platforms across the force in real time.
These advances introduce implications for the Global Hawk as it could help bridge seemingly impassable transmission gaps beyond the horizon or caused by mountainous terrain.
Networking Global Hawks could prove vital for countries like Japan which need to cover large ocean areas surrounding its coast that are potentially vulnerable to Chinese intrusion. This is the case in large measure due to Japan’s large, multi-billion dollar F-35 buy, because Global Hawks could operate in close coordination with the 5th-generation fighters to relay threat data, pass off targeting specifics, share surveillance video in real time and even process time-sensitive data at the point of collection.
A Global Hawk could, for instance, relay threat specifics regarding force movements from a Navy ship on the other side of a mountainous island chain, alerting fighter jets and ground fire otherwise out of view. Some of this might be possible today, yet advances in processing speed and sensing can enable a platform like a Global Hawk to operate effectively as an aerial "node" connecting key platforms and locations otherwise separated by line of sight connectivity challenges. This greatly increases warfare "at speed" and could of course prove decisive in any warfare engagement.
A Global Hawk can help bring a persistent stare to areas connecting otherwise separated radar apertures or “fields of view,” therefore offering commanders a more continuous flow of interwoven information.
The ability to process information at the point of collection, autonomously finding moments of relevance within seemingly limitless volumes of data, can increase networking efficiency and help greatly truncate sensor to shooter times.
In essence, software and computer processing upgrades integrating new AI-enabled algorithms can potentially introduce paradigm-changing elements into Global Hawk operations. Many lessons have likely been learned in recent years such that aircraft like the Global Hawk simply may not be anywhere near as vulnerable as they may have been thought to be years ago. Perhaps a full scale retirement of Block 30 Global Hawks may not be the best choice in light of threats and global operational needs.
What much of this amounts to is that the operational functionality of platforms like the Global Hawk may arguably be just as if not more relevant and needed today than they were when they had their combat debut during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.