Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security

April 1, 2013

The Pentagon’s biggest, most high-tech spy drone aircraft — one of the hottest items on the international arms market — is the key to a burgeoning robotic alliance among the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a $215 million, airliner-size Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) built by Northrop Grumman, could help this four-nation coalition monitor both China, as it increasingly flexes its military muscles, and North Korea, as it develops ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

If, and when, Canberra, Tokyo and Seoul acquire their Global Hawks — all three sales negotiations are still at an early stage — they could all share intelligence with Washington and vice versa. For all would be using the same hardware and software system. The resulting network could monitor millions of square miles of land and sea around the clock and in real time.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees arms transfers, clearly sees this shared system as an asset. “The proposed sale of the RQ-4,” the agency stated when the South Korean deal was announced in December, “will maintain adequate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and will ensure the alliance is able to monitor and deter regional threats.”

American and British forces in southern Afghanistan are pioneering this collaborative model, in which several nations operate their own, essentially identical drones but share the resulting intelligence. U.S. and British airmen now operate a pooled force of missile- and bomb-equipped MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are smaller than the unarmed Global Hawks.

But this robotic alliance is not taking place in a vacuum. China, for one, is working on its own robotic spy fleet, which could give Beijing some of the same capabilities that the Americans, Australians, Japanese and South Koreans could soon possess.

The big difference: China is going it alone.

Robot back-story

The Global Hawk has its roots in the mid-1990s. The Pentagon was encouraged after its experience with early Reaper models during the intervention in Bosnia. So the Defense Department began developing a bigger unmanned drone, capable of flying higher and longer, and with a heavier payload of sensors and radios.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military’s high-risk science wing, commissioned two new UAV designs. Total cost: $400 million to develop and test-fly several prototypes of each model within three years’ time.

The new drones included one type that is optimized for altitude and another that would fly lower but also include radar-evading stealth elements. The latter effort was eventually canceled. Meanwhile, San Diego-based aerospace firm, Teledyne Ryan, snagged the contract for the high-flying model, which it dubbed the Global Hawk.

This new drone could be fitted with cameras, radar and electronic eavesdropping equipment. Capable of flights lasting up to 35 hours at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet, the drone automatically follows global positioning systems waypoints, but stays in touch with operators on the ground via radio data links. The 48-foot-long, straight-winged robot with the bulbous nose takes off and lands automatically. Traditional, manned spy planes are limited by the endurance of the pilot to flights lasting at most 12 hours or so. A Global Hawk, by contrast, can fly until it runs out of fuel ‑ a key advantage in intelligence-gathering.

The Global Hawk first flew at Edwards Air Force Base in California in February 1998. The next year, Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne Ryan and, with it, the Global Hawk program.

Despite crashes, problems with the onboard sensors and huge cost increases, the Global Hawk initiative endured. The huge drones appeared over Afghanistan starting in 2001 and in Iraq beginning in 2003. They have also been used to map disaster zones, including earthquake-ravaged Haiti in early 2011 and Japan following the devastating tsunami in March the same year.

The Navy decided to buy its own drones, as did Germany and NATO.

Today the Pentagon possesses roughly 25 Global Hawks — around 20 in the Air Force and the balance in the Navy. This fleet is slated to expand to more than 100 by the late 2020s.

There are now at least five different versions of the Global Hawk in U.S. service, each with a slightly different airframe and sensor configuration. One model, the Air Force’s “Block 30” Global Hawk, has been the center of a long-running controversy. In February 2011 the Defense Department cut in half its order for the Block 30 and directed the saving towards fixing what it claimed were deficiencies in the UAV’s sensors. A year later the Pentagon announced it would retire all of the dozen or so Block 30s to save money.

But Congress, fearful of an intelligence shortfall, prevented the retirements and added $105 million to maintain the drones for at least a year. “In supporting the operational requirements of the combatant commands,” legislators wrote, “the secretary of the Air Force shall maintain the operational capability of each RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk.”

Pacific expansion

The recent interest from Australia, Japan and South Korea is a major endorsement of the UAV — and reflects increasing tensions in the region over China’s rapid military modernization and the continuing development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. On Feb. 12, Pyongyang conducted an underground test of an estimated 20-kiloton nuclear device ‑ its third nuclear test since 2006.

“Both South Korea and Japan are in need of strong reconnaissance capabilities with respect to their neighbors,” James Simpson, an expert in Asian military affairs with the New Pacific Institute in San Francisco, told Reuters via email. U.S. forces based in South Korea and Japan can now monitor Beijing and Pyongyang’s military activities on behalf of Seoul and Tokyo. But the U.S. and South Korea have agreed to turn over most day-to-day military functions on the Korean Peninsula to Seoul by 2015.

“South Korea,” Simpson explained, “needs to build its capabilities prior to this transition.” Japan is also seeking to bolster its ability to monitor North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy, told Reuters via email.

Japan is equally worried about encroachment by Chinese forces. Flush with new weapons, Beijing has demonstrated increasing assertiveness in its claims on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (known to the Chinese as the Daioyus), deploying patrol ships, planes and, yes, small drones, to probe Tokyo’s defenses in the area. On Jan. 30 a Chinese warship allegedly locked onto a Japanese naval vessel with its weapons-guidance radar — a provocative move that was apparently deliberate.]

“This is their primary focus in the sale [of Global Hawks],” Simpson wrote in another email, in reference to the Japanese. “Japan needs a long-range, loiter-capable reconnaissance platform to keep watch over the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands.” Simpson added that the Global Hawk’s contributions to the tsunami relief efforts helped firm up the government’s interest in the drone.

Australia is seeking to obtain the Global Hawk to patrol the country’s vast ocean approaches. “It’s about the Indian Ocean and securing our sea lanes,” Andrew Davies, an analyst with the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said, discussing Australia’s stated intention to purchase seven of the U.S. Navy version. Davies, speaking on Radio Australia, cited “growing competition between the navies of China, India and the U.S.” in the Indian Ocean as the rationale for the planned drone acquisition.

Drone alliance

U.S. forces would benefit greatly from any Australian, South Korean or Japanese acquisition of the Global Hawk. Seoul’s proposed Global Hawk purchase, for one, “will further U.S. national security interests not only by strengthening the [Republic of Korea]’s capabilities, but also by allowing us to refocus our assets in the region and together monitor and deter regional threat,” Major Cathy Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokesperson, told Reuters via email.

Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who once oversaw all Global Hawks and other intelligence aircraft, explained the positive effects of such a policy. “Common equipment and processing, exploitation and dissemination systems,” Deptula said, “would expand the allied [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] architecture in the Pacific region.”

Each Global Hawk system includes ground stations for controlling the robot drone and relaying the imagery or other data it gathers. Any nation possessing the right ground stations can, in theory, receive information from any Global Hawk, regardless of which nation owns the robot. In that way, the U.S. could build an ocean-spanning surveillance network comprising drones of several countries.

The U.S. and British forces now jointly operating smaller Reaper drones in southern Afghanistan already follow this cooperative model, albeit on a far more modest scale. The possible Global Hawk drone alliance could monitor potentially millions of square miles of the most heavily militarized territory in the world, around the clock.

But the alliance is not the only power in the Pacific seeking this capability. “China clearly has shown an eagerness to develop its own UAV capabilities,” Finnegan said.

The kind of drone Beijing is choosing to develop can be viewed as an endorsement of the thinking behind the possible Global Hawk alliance ‑ minus the alliance part. Beijing’s Soar Dragon drone, which first appeared in late 2011, is, according to Simpson, “the spitting image of the Global Hawk.”

PHOTO (Top): Undated file photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy shows a RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle conducting tests over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Erik Hildebrandt/Northrop Grumman/Handout

PHOTO (Insert A): An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq, June 12, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/Handout/Files

PHOTO (Insert B): Global Hawk drone taking off from Sigonella NATO Airbase in the southern Italian island of Sicily March 20, 2011, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/REUTERS TV

PHOTO (Insert C) U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing is being refueled during operations on the flight line of an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia, January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol-US Air Force/Handout/Files

PHOTO (Insert D): U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing is being refueled during operations on the flight line of an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia in this file image from January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol-US Air Force/Handout/Files


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The huge hole in the future of drones is the likelihood that other countries will develop the same capabilities as the USA currently possesses and will use drones for similar cross-border purposes, including drone strikes, perhaps on American territory. It is unlikely that any American lead can be maintained as the USA falls further and further behind the rest of the world in applied research.

The insignificance of international boundaries to drone use conventions, largely established by the USA, is likely to bring increased foreign drones appearing in US skies without permission. This will haunt future administrations and will clearly require a focus on developing defensive anti-drone technologies and techniques. This is unlikely to be quick because American defense research and development capabilities were dismantled in the mid-1990s. In fact, basic development work on current generation drone technology had been largely completed at that time. Research is different from fruit trees. Next year will not produce fruit without management. And knocking down the orchard makes it harder to restart.

Another issue is the unreliability of American hardware and software. How many US arms exports do not have back doors built into them? Very few, you can bet. Why do you think the US is suddenly so concerned about Chinese hardware and software? The USA knows how easy it is to conceal remote control devices in technology. But, unlike the Chinese, the US would never do such a thing, right? Ask the Iranians. How long will our allies tolerate such insecurity and lack of control in their military systems? Not long.

Behavior has consequences.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive


“…other countries will develop the same capabilities as the USA currently possesses and will use drones for similar cross-border purposes, including drone strikes, perhaps on American territory.” LOL…you’re trying to use a snow globe for a crystal ball.

I don’t know (and neither do you) about the “latest and greatest” U.S. operational drone technology. But the drones that are the subject of this straightforward discussion are not new in any sense of the word. Each is vulnerable to almost every possible means of attack whether machine gun, cannon or missile explosion.

We don’t purposely fly these machines where there is a credible threat to them. They’re expensive, and we are jealous of the technology they carry (which is constantly being updated). Thus even is a hostile nation had this same capability they could send them over U.S. soil to “strike” just once. Should they do so, America will track down the source and extract terrible vengeance on that nation-state or dump the terrorists responsible in Gitmo before the coffee is cold.

“…the USA falls further and further behind the rest of the world in applied research?” You and I only know what they tell us. America’s U2 and the Blackbird were operational over a decade before the world knew of each and their capabilities. Same for the first-ever stealth fighter. What do YOU know of Aurora?

“…foreign drones appearing in US skies without permission…”? Not gonna happen until and unless “cloaking technology” takes a huge jump. When and if that happens, it will be the U.S. that does it. You can bank on it.

“…the unreliability of American hardware and software”? I guess you haven’t noticed that ONLY the United States has sent men to the Moon and returned. The ONLY “moon rocks” available for scientific examination America picked up there and brought back. American hardware and software have been operational on Mars since the seventies. The United States doesn’t HAVE to “…conceal remote control devices…”. We put them up front and center again and again where others can’t even go.

America shows our unique abilities and prowess proudly, even as soulless bureaucratic bean counters slash and slash dollars for interplanetary exploration that have returned countless advances and benefits to the civil economic sector many times “costs of development”.

Why? So ever more illiterates productive only in making more and more of themselves can have a “better life” strutting around their barrio or jivin’ in the ‘hood. But I do agree with you that “Behavior has consequences.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OneoftheSheep, the simple fact you forget is that these drones need money, and lots of it. Being that we are practically bankrupt (what is happening in Europe will reach our shores in a few years), we will not have as much money in the future to invest in these things.

So as much as America is without flaw, or any weakness, in the eyes of many Americans, its simple matter of math. We cant afford it anymore……

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive


Everything is relative. Drones cost infinitely less that the U2s and Blackbird program they replace. Their “pilot-operators” are infinitely cheaper than training a qualified military pilot and keeping them proficient. Can they “do the job alone? Of course not. They don’t have to. But every drone SAVES money to do what must be done.

So while we will not “…have as much money in the future to invest in…” our military capability on a per-person basis there will never be the option of breaking all our swords into plowshares as some would suggest. America will always be hated by those with less, just as the beautiful are often loathed by the ugly and the successful by the unsuccessful. It “goes with the territory”.

Part of our taxes have always been for our defense. That necessity will not likely disappear.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Why does America even have a military?

America has abandoned its own duty to maintain its own borders at its airports.

Why have a military when every day thousands of people from India, China, and many other countries fly right into our main airports, take American jobs in the high-tech sector?

Rarely mentioned in the press is the fact that the number of foreigners allowed to immigrate LEGALLY into the US this year is approximately 1.2 million foreigners.

This annual amount has been sharply increasing for the last 10 years, now averaging over 1 million per year. All other nations in the world do not allow substantial immigration.

It gets worse. This Legal immigration number is now set to sharply increase by a new bill just signed by President Obama allowing immigrants to apply to have family members come over, and reduce the paperwork, and increase the numbers.

Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

Immigration over the past 12 years caused more destruction of the American middle class than any other factor.

All other nations in the world, COMBINED, do not allow the levels of immigration that America is experiencing. It is the largest movement of human beings in the history of the world.

America’s leaders are criminals for allowing it to happen. And that includes the current senators and President. They are both owned by the wealthy class and multinational corporations.

Millions of foreigners, fully loyal to their home countries, have been coming to America as students: Chinese, Indians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Pakistanis, Russians, Koreans, Iraqis, Iranians and other foreigners coming to sit in American class rooms. They then take that knowledge back to their home countries and work for companies or militaries competing against America.

These are all countries competing with America, taking American jobs, living in American apartment buildings, and often using ill-gotten money. They are arriving by the thousands every day, many under H1B visas or L1 visa.

Why does America even have a military? We are being literally invaded by immigration, and we do nothing.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

I acknowledge that this article is more about surveillance drones than any other kind but I do think the significant effects drones have had on asymmetrical warfare needs to be highlighted.

Insurgents always hide amongst the local populace, using them as cover and as a defence. The drones are able to stay on station for extended periods and then carry out accurate strikes on identified and corroborated targets. Yes there are civilians killed quite often but this is the choice of the insurgents who are able to use the deaths for propaganda purposes. The unintended casualties are much less than would be the case using ground troops or artillery and manned aircraft are limited by time in the air.

Insurgencies are extremely difficult to fight against being, generally, reactive. Drones bring pro-activity and reduced friendly casualties while being highly effective in reducing the will and manpower of the insurgents. The civilian “human shields” will always be an issue but far less than was the case prior to drones.

No wonder there is such an outcry from those who decry “American Imperialism” or “Western Hegemony”. Drones actually work.

Posted by CraigKing | Report as abusive