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Global Hawk UAV gets bigger and more capable

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November 10, 2005

Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk RQ-4A

Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk RQ-4A

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November 11, 2005 The Global Hawk UAV was still in its development stages when the needs of the war in Afghanistan saw it pressed into service. Since then, Global Hawk has successfully completed more than 225 missions through three deployments and more than 4,900 combat flight hours. Now the aircraft has been redesigned to carry 50% more payload, so the Air Force can install additional sensors, enhancing its ability to simultaneously collect imagery, signals intelligence and infrared and radar information, and transfer it to the warfighting machine in near-real time. Global Hawk flies autonomously at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet, above inclement weather and prevailing winds, for 35+ hours at a time. During a single mission, it can provide detailed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information in near-real time over 40,000 square miles - approximately the size of Illinois.

To accommodate the increased payload capacity, Northrop Grumman has redesigned and strengthened Global Hawk's fuselage. The RQ-4B's fuselage is four feet longer and just slightly taller than the RQ-4A's. The wingspan has also increased by approximately fifteen feet, allowing the RQ-4B to carry more fuel. The RQ-4B also features a gross take-off weight 5500 pounds heavier than that of the RQ-4A and a payload of 3000 pounds, 50% more than the previous model.

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman Corporation a contract to begin production of the next five RQ-4B Global Hawk aerial reconnaissance systems. The new $60 million contract will allow the company to start purchasing long-lead parts for the unmanned air vehicles, the enhanced integrated sensor suites for four of the air vehicles, one mission-control element, and one launch-and-recovery element. Production of the hardware for these five new RQ-4B air vehicles is expected to begin late this year, with assembly starting next year.

Northrop Grumman is currently producing five RQ-4B Global Hawks at its manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif., as part of several previous limited-production contracts.

History of the Global Hawk

Global Hawk began as an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration in 1995, to give war-fighters a rapidly developed prototype that can be used for Military Utility Assessment (MUA) and early operational activities. In June 1999, Global Hawk began a series of exercises sponsored by U.S. Joint Forces Command to determine its future military uses.

On April 20, 2000, Global Hawk Air Vehicle No. 4 deployed to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to participate in two exercises that included its first trans-oceanic flight to Europe, and first mission flown in one theater of operations while under control from another.

The first exercise, Linked Seas 00, which ran May 1-12, 2000, involved joint and service war-fighters, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, its regional command, and several NATO nations, among them Portugal. Global Hawk provided direct support to amphibious operations in a joint-force environment involving air, sea, sub-surface and land-based assets.

During the second exercise, Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) 00-02, which took place from May 14-26, 2000, Global Hawk provided direct support for the joint maritime mission of a Navy Carrier Battle Group and an Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit in a littoral (land-sea) environment. Global Hawk returned to Edwards AFB, Calif., on June 19, 2000, concluding the deployment exercise demonstration program.

According to U.S. Joint Forces Command, during 22 individual sorties it flew during the yearlong series of joint deployment exercises, Global Hawk proved its military worth by providing critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the war-fighting community.

To demonstrate interoperability between U.S. and Australian military systems, Global Hawk flew 7,500 miles nonstop across the Pacific to Australia on April 22-23, 2001, setting several new world records for UAV endurance. U.S. and Australian Defence Science Technology Organisation officials evaluated the UAV’s performance and future military potential during 11 sorties in the land-sea environment before it flew home to Edwards AFB, Calif., six weeks later.

In October 2003, the Air Force demonstrated Global Hawk’s capabilities to the German Ministry of Defence in northern Germany. Following a ferry flight from Edwards Air Force Base to Nordholz, Germany, an RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with a EADS electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensor prototype performed a series of flight demonstrations over a six-week deployment. Germany is considering a derivative of the Global Hawk, dubbed Euro Hawk, for its high altitude endurance UAV requirement.

Global Hawk is now in low rate initial production. Northrop Grumman delivered the first production Global Hawk air vehicle to the Air Force in 2003. There are currently four production air vehicles and four technology demonstration air vehicles in the Air Force inventory. The Navy will take delivery of the first of two Global Hawks this summer. The two Navy Global Hawks are slated for a maritime demonstration later in 2005 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

The current Global Hawk “A” model has a wingspan of 116 feet (35.4 meters) and is 44 feet long (13.5 meters). It can range as far as 12,000 nautical miles (22,236 kilometers) at altitudes up to 65,000 feet (19.8 km), flying at speeds approaching 340 knots (about 400 mph) for as long as 35 hours. During a typical mission, the aircraft can fly 1,200 miles to an area of interest and remain on station for 24 hours.

The new “B” model has a wingspan of 130.9 feet (39.9 meters) and the length will increase to 47.6 feet (14.5 meters). The air vehicle will fly at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet (18.3 kilometers), extend its maximum endurance to 36 hours and maintain 24 hours on station 1,200 miles from its operating location.

The system currently carries an Integrated Sensor Suite consisting of an electro-optical and infrared sensor and a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator. The cloud-penetrating, day or night sensor package can image an area the size of the U.S. state of Illinois (40,000 nautical square miles) in just 24 hours. Through satellite and ground systems, the imagery can be relayed in near real time to battlefield commanders. The RQ-4B configuration will be outfitted with open system architecture that will allow the air vehicle to carry multiple payloads including systems for collecting signals and electronics intelligence.

When fully fueled for flight, Global Hawk weighs approximately 25,600 pounds. More than half the system’s components are constructed of lightweight, high-strength composite materials, including its wings, wing fairings, empennage, engine cover, engine intake, and three radomes. Its main fuselage is standard aluminum, semi-monocoque construction.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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