The Air Force is planning to retire the Block 30 variants of its RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft, most of which are less than ten years old. Senior Air Force officials have noted that the large surveillance assets will be challenged by advanced air defenses. For instance, Iran shot down a Global Hawk in 2019 with surface-to-air missiles. Although the retirement plan is underway, it seems possible that military planners may be able to keep these aircraft flying by making survivability adjustments such as adopting new countermeasures or shifting tactics.
For many years, senior Air Force leaders have talked about the importance of making certain tactical adjustments with larger drone operations such as acting less predictable along a flight path and varying course trajectories while continuing to leverage surveillance cameras at high altitudes. Even U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian has discussed the need for such changes.
Retiring the Block 30 aircraft would leave the Air Force with a performance gap in an already “surveillance starved” military. By adjusting tactics though, such as flying at altitudes less vulnerable to enemy air defenses, large unmanned aircraft like the Global Hawk could continue to add unique value to the battlefield. In contrast, U-2 surveillance planes are manned and therefore require greater risks. Also, unlike manned spy planes, the Global Hawk can operate for more than twenty-four hours without the interference created by the needs of a flight crew.
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.