The U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk drone can circle above hostile terrain searching for enemy targets for up to forty hours on a single mission, zooming in with high fidelity, long-range sensors able to monitor potential adversaries. Perhaps of greatest significance, the Air Force Global Hawk finds and transmits time-sensitive crucial warzone targeting information, a long-standing technical capability which is one reason why the Air Force is putting more money into upgrading and sustaining its current fleet of thirty-four drones. Now, the service and its industry partners believe the Global Hawk can continue to fly decades into the future.
Through a recent deal with Global Hawk maker Northrop Grumman, the Air Force is expanding the modernization of its drone fleet to include retrofitting the platforms with cutting-edge sensor technologies. For instance, the drone, which continues to operate in the Pacific and other strategically-vital global hotspots, is now being outfitted with a new generation of multi-spectral imaging sensors, Northrop officials say.
“ISR can be a strong deterrent when an adversary knows that we are observing their training, that we know what they can or can’t do from an operational perspective, and that we have a good idea how they will act in battle,” Leslie Smith, Vice President, Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest.
Smith’s comments align with a longstanding Air Force conceptual emphasis that there continues to be an “insatiable demand” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from global combatant commanders. Not only is there a need for pure volume when it comes to sustained “persistent eye” operations above high-value terrain, but the Air Force and Northrop Grumman have also been working on new generations of command-and-control technology. These new technologies will be for organizing, analyzing and processing sensor data, a technical procedure called Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED). The goal with this is to engineer advanced algorithms able to sift through hours of drone video feeds and sensor information to identify moments of relevance for human operators, thus saving airmen hours of work and therefore freeing them up to expend cognitive and operational energy toward more critical operations. This kind of technical capacity also better fortifies the cross-force networking of intelligence data in real time, serving the Air Force push toward massively decreasing sensor to shooter time.
Global Hawks, Northrop developers say, have flown as many as 300,000 operational hours over the last twenty 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 eight years.
“The Global Hawk aircraft is made from composite and metallic materials that allow each aircraft to fly for many tens of thousands of operational hours, more than the average aircraft,” Smith explained.
While a large 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 electronic warfare measures. Sensor technology is also changing at what could be called a staggering rate, meaning smaller and smaller hardware systems are increasingly able to improve image resolution and greatly extend detection and sensing ranges. The Global Hawk has also provided the technical infrastructure for 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 aligns with and complements Global Hawk surveillance technologies. The point with this, a factor which pertains to both the Triton and the Global Hawk, is for the Air Force to rely upon a common or modular technical architecture to rapidly add or integrate impactful software upgrades designed to expand mission scope and capability.
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.