Drone coalition: Key to U.S. security
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.
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.”
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.
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