The 18th Reconnaissance Squadron -- newest operators of the spiffy Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drone -- offered me total access during a visit last week. I was impressed with the bird before my visit; I left even more so.Nearly a decade after its inception, the Air Force is finally migrating the Global Hawk drone from demonstration to production; the 18th standing up at Beale Air Force Base in northern California in May is just one aspect of this transition. Co-located 12th RS flies operational missions while the 18th trains pilots, sensor operators and maintainers. Now the Reserve 13th RS and the California Air National Guard have begun contributing crews to the active-duty squadrons. All this represents the "regularization" of Global Hawk ops.Meanwhile, Global Hawk production is ramping up at Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, California, plant, with around 17 aircraft worth $70 mil apiece under assembly for the Air Force. These are in addition to the seven (cheaper) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration aircraft delivered from 1998, three of which were lost in accidents. The Navy has taken delivery of two RQ-4As to explore its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance concept. One A model flown by the 12th RS is deployed to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A maintenance trainer A model is permanently parked in the 18th RS hangar on the same ramp space occupied by the 9th RW's Lockheed Martin U-2S Dragon Ladies. Finally, the first RQ-4Bs with longer wings and more payload capability begin rolling off the production line in late August. The Air Force plans to field more than 50 Global Hawks by 2015.The seemingly modest size of the projected RQ-4 fleet belies its enormous potential. The aircraft can orbit at up to 65,000 feet for as many as 30 hours while simultaneously carrying an Electro-Optical camera, an Infra-Red camera and a Synthetic Aperture Radar with Moving Target Indicator. Sensor data is relayed via satellite to a ground station (see pic at left) for processing and dissemination, giving theater commanders a multi-spectral bird's-eye view of the battlefield.The aircraft's endurance means it can do the work of many older (manned) aircraft such as the U-2, according to 18th RS commander Colonel Christopher Jella. Due to the limited endurances of the human body and traditional life-support systems, a U-2 force would need at least three aircraft and as many as 10 pilots to maintain a 24-hour orbit -- and it would do so at greater cost while risking those pilots' lives. Two Global Hawks could provide indefinite constant surveillance of a battlefield while risking no lives. While there are no cost savings in personnel (the Global Hawk community maintains a high pilot-to-aircraft ration in order to limit its crews to four-hour shifts), by cutting back on take-offs and landings (where most wear and tear occurs) Global Hawk operations reduce maintenance costs by over a given period versus manned aircraft.A rough calculus indicates that 50 Global Hawks might do the work of more than 100 U-2s. Considering that today's U-2 force numbers slightly more than 30 aircraft, this means a tremendous leap in the U.S. Air Force's surveillance capability. With the U.S. Navy, Australia, Germany and the U.K., among others, considering RQ-4 purchases, one imagines a robust future surveillance constellation for democratic nations.During my visit, I got to poke around the containerized Mission Control Element, where pilots and sensor operators crew (via Ku-band satellite datalink; see pic at right) aircraft that might be flying on the other side of the globe. I also checked out the similar Launch and Recovery Element, which takes off and lands the bird from its deployed location using a line-of-sight datalink. Plus there was a visit to the 18th RS hangar, where maintainers toiled on the squadron's RQ-4A. To call this remote-controlled plane BIG is an understatement.There has been a lot of Congressional waffling on the Air Force's recent request to retire the U-2 in favor of the Global Hawk. I was skeptical of the proposal myself until my visit. The U-2 is an impressive aircraft in its own right, but with Global Hawks rolling off the production line and proving themselves overseas, the old Dragon Lady's days are numbered.Check out some sweet pics at my Flickr!--David Axe
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