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Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk — reconnaissance no, surveillance yes

12 March 2012

Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk — reconnaissance no, surveillance yes

This UAV is named Global Hawk but could more accurately be called “Albatross” for its strong slender wings which enable the aircraft to cruise thousands of miles per hop. Nature’s albatross species annually migrate thousands of miles across hemispheres with tremendous endurance — at times into headwinds cutting ground speed to the speeds we typically drive around the neighborhood and at timed with tailwinds which propel these birds to high flying velocities akin to airliner take off speeds.

Such is this UAV which has been built in a few versions — called “blocks” — some for surveillance (loitering over an area of interest) and some for reconnaissance (sent a long way to gather  specific information). It is an impressive platform at $218 million per aircraft with a cruise speed that is slightly over 400 mph (650kph) over a range of 15,500 miles (nearly 25,000km) — or a flight time of 36 hours for surveillance purposes. The wing span is almost three times the length at 116 feet (~35m) and is chiefly why I think albatross is a fitting term for this UAV.

Infrared and electro-optical sensors work in concert with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) enabling the RQ-4 to work in the day or the night, regardless of most cloud cover. Ground motion targeting is also part of the autonomous processing capability. More on the sensor suite can be seen at this Raytheon Company link.

When first envisioned the Block 30 RQ-4 was designed to replace the U-2 aircraft, the Hawk sensor suite is a reduced version of the U-2’s, but that has not yet become successful. The USAF decided to store $3.5 billion USD worth of Block 30 RQ-4’s until a later time as the U-2 missions could be accomplished for less cost. Sensor resolution lack combined with additional equipment onboard the U-2 also led to the decision. Interesting articles on the subject can be read here in an Air Force Times article as well as this article written in Defense Update.

As temporarily disappointing as the Block 30’s may be the other blocks excel and a version called the KQ-X may be under development as an autonomous in-flight refueling UAV. In-flight refueling with no need for crew rest or provisioning would give the Global Hawk endurance without limit.

I am a geologist and envy the use of this UAV to aid the study of weather systems and terrain on a global real time scale. Additional instrumentation combined with that already present could collect data to refine our understandings of high altitude dust transport (which affects crops and weather continents away from the source) as well as mid oceanic weather system formation (why hurricanes form and why they do not) — not to mention long term weather phenomena like the North Atlantic Oscillation and South Pacific Oscillation. SAR also can help uncover geologic structure (useful in archeology, geological hazard study and minerals exploration). It was Space Shuttle-borne SAR which uncovered lost portions of the Silk Road and a city which had disappeared in the desert, as one example. NASA also has this page on their Global Hawk with an interactive portion that is entertaining as well as just plain good. For example, NASA has the GRIP (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes) which relies on a Global Hawk as well as a Douglas DC-8. Here is a link to an informative presentation about GRIP, especially pages 9, 15 and 16.

Global Hawk has not delivered all that has been promised, perhaps it was oversold, but as an aircraft it has more than excelled — only sensor technology requires advancement  — but Global Hawk, and UAVs like it, will be a significant part of our future.

The Global Hawk in the images below were taken of the third design vehicle (AV-3) YRQ-4A Global Hawk. Overtaken by events with the 9-11 attack this prototype was quickly pressed into service in several efforts: Operation Southern Watch, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom as well as Combined Task Force Africa in a total of 195 combat missions. It also flew to a record in flying autonomously in one hop from Australia to Edwards Air Force Base. More on the Global Hawk and this particular aircraft can be read on the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Global Hawk fact sheet.

The YRQ-4A Global Hawk in the National Museum of the USAF (note that it is much larger than the F-86 Sabre below it) — photo by Joseph May

Symbology shows this was a busy GH (it flew 195 combat missions) — photo by Joseph May



Ross Sharp, the person behind Shortfinals’s Blog, I think solves the mission symbology question. He observes the majority of the symbols are the country outlines of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a tori (Japan) and two kangaroo symbols á lá the Royal Australian Air Force for Australia. Thanks 🙂

4 Comments leave one →
  1. shortfinals permalink
    12 March 2012 16:10

    The mission symbols seem to be divided into two types, outline symbols of Iraq and outline symbols of Afghanistan! However, there is also a ‘tori’ and two different sizes of ‘kangaroo’ (in the style of the ‘kanga’ found on RAAF aircraft). This must mean that this UAV touched down in Japan and Australia…………



    • travelforaircraft permalink
      12 March 2012 18:10

      Yes, I see what you mean and entirely agree. Great insight Ross, thanks 🙂 Joe

  2. mike permalink
    1 December 2015 19:29

    Just found this page while searching for some pictures. I have several hundred hours flying this exact jet between 2004 and 2009 when she finally came home for good ( Each symbol was for a mission flown. OIF (Iraqi Freedom), OEF (Afghanistan), the Tori for a demo flight through Japanese airspace, and the Kangaroos for ferry flights through Australia. While it’s no longer visible because the gear doors are closed there’s a bit of history to the aircraft – Drew Carey the Middle East early in the days of OIF and he signed the nose gear door with a big black permanent marker.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      2 December 2015 11:26

      Your email is an early Christmas present! I’ll happily refine the post over the weekend. Such a good thing to have the mission symbols explained. Thank you very much, Joe

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