Conceived and engineered purely for geomapping and intelligence work long associated with the aging U-2, the RQ-4B Global Hawk was already cutting edge when it was first flown at Edwards Air Force Base in 1998, just three years after DARPA and the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office (DARO) contracted Northrop Grumman to build the US Air Force’s next spy plane.
It was the War on Terror, rather than long-range surveillance ops conducted against a menacing foreign power, that proved the Global Hawk’s usefulness. To date the Global Hawk has totaled more than 100,000 flight hours and conducted 1,100 missions around the world, including humanitarian deployments like the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
The crucial difference between the Global Hawk and the more ubiquitous Predator series built by General Atomics is in their roles.
Predators are remote controlled strike aircraft while the Global Hawk is a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) model that flies autonomously save for coordinates programmed by the human pilot.
Although never configured for a weapons payload despite its size–it’s 47.6 feet long with a wingspan of 131 feet–the Global Hawk’s performance specifications are formidable.
Its single Rolls-Royce AE3006H turbofan jet engine allows it to cruise above 65,000 feet at beyond 4oo miles per hour; the Global Hawk’s maximum listed speed is 454 mph.
The Global Hawk’s range is dramatic too. Since it’s essentially a spy plane, the Global Hawk can remain airborne for 24 hours, conduct missions in the 32 to 40-hour range, and cover a continent-spanning distance of 12,300 nautical miles.
While Northrop Grumman is responsible for selling the Global Hawk (going for $30 million each), most of its systems were sourced to different companies in the US.
The USAF have a total of 31 Global Hawks in all models: Block 10, 20, 30, and the conclusive Block 40. The Navy have two, with an estimated 70 possible orders in the near future. Foreign allies in East Asia and NATO, even NASA, could buy more as long range patrols are now urgently needed beyond national borders .
The Global Hawk is manufactured at the Teledyne-Ryan Aeronautical plant in San Diego owned by Northrop Grumman, a publicly listed defense contractor specializing in aerospace.
With the Global Hawk program’s future at risk from cancelled domestic production it’s unclear just how long it remains in service. Northrop Grumman is unfazed since it considers itself an industry leader for unmanned systems–their X-47B is the only credible autonomous carrier-based attack aircraft in existence.