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.