The US Air Force plans to award Northrop Grumman contracts valued at $4 billion to sustain and modernize the RQ-4 Global Hawk over the next five years as the high-flying unmanned aircraft emerges from the shadow of potential retirement into a normalised defence programme.
While lawmakers and military officials in Washington debate the U-2 and Global Hawk’s future, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, CA, is focusing on the global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission instead of stressing about which aircraft might eventually be retired, according to the wing commander.
In a Feb. 13 phone interview with Inside the Air Force, Col. Douglas Lee said the tussle over which airframe should be retired and when should concern those inside the beltway, not the airmen conducting the mission.
The wing, headquartered at Beale AFB, has been the subject of several contentious force structure decisions in recent years as the Air Force has asked Congress for authority to retire the U-2, then the Global Hawk, and then the U-2 again. Meanwhile, the wing’s manned MC-12 Liberty tactical airborne surveillance mission is being transferred from Air Combat Command to the Army and a portion of the fleet will eventually go to Air Force Special Operations Command.
Northrop Grumman has secured a contract to deliver four unmanned RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance aircraft to South Korea, as Japan begins negotiating a similar deal.
The $657 million “hybrid contract” procures four Block 30 aircraft, two spare engines and two ground control stations, according to a Dec. 16 Defense Department contract announcement.
The deal comes almost nine months after South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced the selection of Global Hawk to meet its high-altitude surveillance requirement.
In a Dec. 17 email to Inside the Air Force, Northrop spokesman Warren Comer said the company is pleased to move forward with RQ-4B delivery. As a foreign military sale, the program will be managed through the Air Force’s Global Hawk program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OK.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense has announced the selection of Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and RQ-4B Global Hawk to meet its military modernization requirements. The country has also decided to procure the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey.
The Japanese MOD made the announcements in a series of notices accompanying the release of its fiscal year 2015 budget request. The notices were posted Nov. 21.
Northrop’s E-2D was selected over Boeing’s 737 AEW&C offer for an airborne warning and control platform. The MOD notice said the E-2D rated higher in terms of function and performance, cost and logistics.
The Global Hawk was the preferred platform to meet the country’s high-altitude remotely piloted aircraft requirement, beating the extended-range MQ-9 Guardian aircraft proposed by General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc. The V-22 was the only tiltrotor aircraft considered for Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force.
Both the Air Force and NASA are fairly open about their Global Hawk programs so there are plenty of great photos and videos online (see below). The aircraft were built for unarmed surveillance missions, and a few early-model Air Force RQ-4s were transferred to NASA.
The space agency has two Global Hawks, produced by defense firm Northrop Grumman for DARPA originally. Right now, the aircraft are performing hurricane monitoring missions from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Their home base is in California.
As if to make them look more friendly and peaceful than the Air Force Global Hawk “drones,” the NASA aircraft are painted white.
The space agency posted this video of Global Hawk 871 taking off from Wallops in September 2013. Notice the chase car following behind. The aircraft’s sibling is GH 872.
The remotely piloted aircraft, as the Air Force insists on calling them, can fly up to 60,000 feet for 22-30 hours, meaning they can fly above the hurricane.
Oddly, Air Force Global Hawks historically have had poor mission availability rates in the Pacific region primarily because of local thunderstorms and typhoons. The reason is, if the aircraft encounter adverse weather they will turn around and come back because the pilot has limited situational awareness when it comes to weather. The pilot in the cockpit cannot see and avoid thunderstorms, and so missions are scrubbed if there is a chance of encountering adverse weather along the way.
NASA missions, I’m sure, are designed around a particular weather event, so the pilot would known exactly how long he/she has to reach the correct altitude.
From 2015-2016, the Air Force is adding new adverse weather capabilities to the RQ-4B, primarily a weather radar and anti-icing .
Rolls-Royce has almost completed the physical construction of a new, organic RQ-4B Global Hawk engine maintenance and overhaul facility for the Air Force at Tinker Air Force Base’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, and soon plant equipment will be moving to the factory floor to have the facility operational by the end of calendar year 2015, as planned.
The company currently services the high-flying spy aircraft’s AE 3007H power plant at a facility in Canada but as the Global Hawk program moves from development and production to sustainment, the Air Force has a Title 10 requirement to maintain the capability organically.
During an Oct. 16 interview with Inside the Air Force, Rolls-Royce executives said construction work is about 90-percent complete and over the next six months or so machines and equipment will begin moving in.
“The construction is just about done. It’s then about moving equipment in and standing up all the systems and getting it running,” said Tom Hartmann, Rolls-Royce’s senior vice president of customer business. “I would expect a grand opening probably after October of next year.”
Air Combat Command appears ready to support Northrop Grumman’s universal payload adapter solution for transferring national security sensors from the U-2 to the RQ-4B Global Hawk once it is determined which sensors would be most appropriate to carry on the high-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft.
Northrop believes its internally-developed adapter, which involves airframe and software changes, would allow the Global Hawk to carry the Optical Bar Camera (OBC) and Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS) sensors currently supported by the U-2 spy plane — an aircraft the Pentagon has targeted for retirement to cut costs.
The company last year offered to reconfigure six Global Hawks for $48 million, but the Air Force declined the offer citing a lack of “sufficient technical information.” More recently the company offered to demonstrate the universal payload adapter design using its own funds, however, that would require the Air Force to provide Northrop with one Global Hawk and SYERS sensor.
During an Oct. 10 interview with Inside the Air Force, the head of ACC’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance weapon systems division confirmed the command’s continued interest in the universal payload adapter (UPA) and said the service is working closely with Northrop on a final solution.
“We’re trying to identify the sensors that would be most appropriate to put on the UPA right now,” Col. James Merchant said. “We’re right in the middle of it.”
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Inside the Air Force – 10/10/2014, Vol. 25, No. 41