The Global Hawk has been flying for close to 15 years, and its development has been a twisting road filled with dead ends and wandering requirements. After over $10B spent and almost 50 airframes produced I ventured to Edwards AFB to get a rare close up look at what we actually paid for.

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The Global Hawk family just hit 100,000 hours of combat and operational support flying in its career, and the first Global Hawk ever built has just flown its 100th mission for NASA. Undoubtedly, these are serious milestone for a program that has struggled to mature and to secure its relevance within an Air Force that is plagued with often conflicting and wandering priorities.

Just after I arrived at Edwards AFB, as we were making our way out onto the airfield in the brilliant morning light for some shots around the sprawling super-base, a Global Hawk came rocketing off the runway, rotating sharply and steeply climbing to a couple hundred feet before making a hard, almost fighter-like break to the northeast. I was really struck by what I had just seen. These aircraft, with their massive glider like wings, always seemed like under-powered and fragile albatrosses, well apparently that assumption was very wrong.

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Later in the day I would find out that the aircraft I saw make such a dramatic departure was on its way to be delivered to Beale AFB. Once the home to the SR-71 Blackbird, and still home to the U-2 Dragon Lady and MC-12 Liberty fleet, Beale AFB, the USAF's premier reconnaissance base, is also the operational Global Hawk fleet's primary nest.

Although I have seen Global Hawks in person from a distance before at Edwards and I have been up-close and personal with NASA's commandeered early development models, the first impression I had when approaching the 7.5-ton aircraft in its secure hangar was just how large it truly is.

Compared to Predator and Reaper, the Honda Civic and Accord of unmanned combat aircraft, the Block 30 Global Hawk, with its 130.9-foot wingspan, simply dwarfs them. It is an expansive and somewhat elegant machine, and because of its flowing lines, bulging forward and aft fuselage, and expansive laminar flow wings, it almost looks organic, as if it was grown, not built.

The Global Hawk was originally designed by unmanned aircraft pioneer Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, which was bought by Northrop Grumman in 1999. The aircraft was proposed to fulfill the Tier II+ requirement put forward by the USAF in the early 1990s, a competition that it won.

The Tier II+ requirement called for a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system, that would have roughly the same capabilities as the U-2 Dragon Lady, but would be able to stay on-station for a much longer period of time. In addition, this new unmanned system would be affordable (with the cost about equal to an F-16) and have a lower cost-per-flight hour than the U-2. It would also be able to carry an optical and infrared camera, a synthetic aperture radar, and an advanced electronic surveillance suite simultaneously. At least that was the plan.

Some 16 years after its first flight in 1998, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is still finding that the U-2's shoes are hard ones to fill.

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Over the past decade, Global Hawk slowly matured as it also grew in size and weight. Today, the program sees the Block 30 and Block 40 aircraft attempting to finally wrestle away the U-2's mission once and for all. Older block aircraft that proved ineffective as a full-on U-2 replacements, have been converted to fly as battlefield communications gateways (EQ-4B), given to NASA to conduct flight testing and science missions, and are used by the US Navy as testbeds for the MQ-4C Triton program, an advanced maritime surveillance derivative of the Global Hawk, which is now flying in whole form.

Other customers, such as NATO under the Alliance Ground Surveillance cooperative program, and potential buyers including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Norway and the UK have kept the Global Hawk at the cutting edge of the slowly blooming international heavy unmanned aircraft systems marketplace.

Although the Global Hawk remains the most advanced known HALE unmanned aircraft system in the world, a more capable alternative for some of the Global Hawks' missions, and even more dangerous ones, is likely to already have flown in the form of a shadowy aircraft known informally as the RQ-180, which the USAF has all but fully admitted to exist.

This large, stealthy, flying wing aircraft, presumed to be operating out of Area 51, is thought to have many of the Global Hawk's capabilities, but in a much more survivable stealthy flying-wing package. This advanced configuration presumably allows the RQ-180 to penetrate enemy air defense networks, or at least observe in very close proximity to them, while remaining undetected. Although the Global Hawk's smooth surface shaping, buried engine, and heavy use of composite structures lowers its radar cross-section, it was never designed to be a truly low observable, enemy territory penetrating, reconnaissance aircraft.

Even if such an advanced capability does indeed exist, it does not fully negate the relevance of the Global Hawk, as most of its missions take place at standoff distances from enemy air defense networks. Still, if the Global Hawk is the consolation prize to the USAF's more cutting edge "RQ-180," the program would no longer be a centerpiece technology for the USAF, and at an estimated $28k per flight hour, and a cost of up to $220M per aircraft, depending on how you calculate it (with R&D rolled or just the plane itself without ground systems etc), the Global Hawk sounds strange being considered the 'low end' of the USAF's high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned surveillance capability spectrum.

Regardless of what currently may or may not exist on the fringes of America's unmanned reconnaissance capability, the Global Hawk remains a unique and remarkable machine. The fact that it can stay airborne for almost a day and a half gives it an edge that the U-2 simply does not have. Yet, in regards to it replacing the U-2 fleet, naysayers cite multiple areas where the RQ-4 struggles in comparison to the 55-year-old Lockheed design. These gripes include the following:

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  • The U-2 can carry a payload of 5,000lbs, whereas the RQ-4B can carry 3,000lbs. Additionally, the U-2 has more internal space and bay options to configure different reconnaissance payloads. It also has about double the on-board power generating capability, which is key for operating multiple powerful sensors at the same time, and the Global Hawk's current power generation abilities may hamper the aircraft's future growth.
  • The USAF's Global Hawks cannot fly through bad weather. The aircraft lacks deicing and lightning protection equipment, as well as certain fortifications to its wing structure. Additionally, the pilots have no way to see a storm in front of the aircraft via on-board radar or optics. Seeing as the aircraft can fly over vast and remote distances on a single mission, this has hurt the Global Hawk's sortie rate, as missions where bad weather could be encountered have to be scrubbed. In places like the Pacific, encountering storms somewhere along the Global Hawk's long routes is more probable than not. This has plagued the RQ-4's mission success rate, which is 55%, compared to the U-2 at 96%.
  • The Global Hawk flies lower than the U-2, below 60,000 fleet, while the U-2 flies at well over 70,000 feet. This means that the U-2's sensors and line-of-sight data links have a better range via the jet's higher perch, which is pretty crucial seeing as the aircraft's mission is standoff surveillance. Additionally, the U-2 can fly over pretty much any inclement weather, while the Global Hawk cannot, which takes us back to the whole aforementioned "flying in bad weather" issue.
  • The U-2's camera system is better than the Global Hawk's. Apparently there have been some improvements to the system to try and reach some sort of parity, but from what I have heard, the U-2 still owns the image intelligence collection realm hands down over the Global hawk. Northrop Grumman offered to pull the U-2's SYERS II (Senior Year Electro-optic Reconnaissance System) cameras out of the U-2 fleet and install them on the Global Hawk for around $50M. The Air Force estimated it would cost closer to $900M for new SYERS II cameras to be fitted on the Global Hawk, which there is no budget for. Yet if the USAF took Northrop Grumman up on their $50M offer, it would means that the U-2s will have their optical capabilities cannibalized, in effect putting the aircraft out of its primary business.
  • The U-2s are paid for, and have received new cockpits, upgraded pressurization systems and sensors. The Global Hawk and its ground control and communications stations costs many tens of millions of dollars. In a time of fiscal austerity every billion counts, and seeing as the U-2 duplicates much of the RQ-4s job, and supposedly does it better, the fiscal case for keeping the U-2 in service is a compelling one. The Global Hawk and the U-2 are now within a few thousand dollars of each other when it comes to their per hour flight costs, but the RQ-4s long endurance and its ability to dispense with pilot training probably gives it a slight leg up in the cost per hour department.
  • The RQ-4 lacks the ability to operate in dense airspace without major preparations, unlike the U-2 which has a pilot on-board and can integrate with civilian traffic much easier regardless of its unique flying qualities. So called "sense and avoid" systems are in the works for unmanned aircraft, but they still remain in development, and probably will for some time. This also means that the U-2 can be more easily forward deployed for surveillance missions, while the Global Hawk often has to be stationed far away from its target and utilizes international airspace that does not have heavy restrictions on unmanned aircraft, to operate. This basing issue does negate some of the Global Hawk's long endurance in some cases and was the primary reason why Germany's order for the "Euro Hawk" was cancelled. The long distances that the Global Hawk has to travel to its target area and back due to commercial air traffic interoperability issues, also exacerbates the aircraft's inability to fly through bad weather and known icing conditions. For instance, the U-2 can run surveillance flights of North Korea out of South Korea, while the Global Hawk has to fly all the way from Guam for that same mission as South Korea, much like Europe, has strict rules on unmanned aircraft operating within its airspace. If it takes many hours to get on station and return to base, the Global Hawk's unique persistence edge over the U-2 quickly erodes.
  • When it comes to age, the Global Hawk clearly has the upper hand over the U-2 by decades, but that does not mean the U-2 is a rapidly aging platform that needs to be sent to the boneyard anytime soon. In a Defense News article, a representative from Lockheed was quoted as saying that the U-2 airframe life is set at a whopping 75,000 hours. Currently, the U-2 fleet has an average of around 14,000 hours on each airframe. In other words, keeping the U-2s around for another decade or two while unmanned technology continues to mature would not present a major durability issue, and the aircraft have never been more capable or more pilot friendly to fly than they are today.
  • The Global Hawk is semi-autonomous, meaning that it still requires occasional commands and cross checking with a team on the ground via a desktop type, "point to fly here" interface. Inside the Mission Control Element (MCE), crews can tell the aircraft where to go and what to do, as opposed to 'flying' the aircraft and employing its sensors manually. This systems relies on a Ku band satellite data link or a line of sight data link to operate. It is not clear what type of autonomous modes the RQ-4 has today, but if the system is operating as normal that same data link interface may help give away the Global Hawk's position, or if satellite systems are jammed or destroyed during a time of war, it could result in a mission fail for the Global Hawk. Once again, hopefully the Global Hawk can fly itself to its area of operations, collect its pre-planned data, put it into an on-board storage system and return without manual interface. If it cannot, than that is a major concern that the piloted U-2, and the 'customers' of the prized data it collects, simply do not have.

As it sits now, it seems that the U-2 should remain as America's high-flying surveillance multi-tool of choice, and that the Global Hawk was a solution to a problem that never existed. Well, this is not entirely accurate. When you look at the bigger picture of not just what the Global Hawk can do, but what it represents and is paving the way for, its contribution to America's defense is greater than the sum of its parts.

The entire Global Hawk concept must be viewed as much as an ongoing research and development investment than as an operational aircraft program alone. The semi-autonomous 'desktop' interface, operating procedures, and general technological enrichment that has been gained through the program's sometimes frustrating developmental saga will pay off not just in future Global Hawk configurations, but in many aircraft and unmanned concepts that will follow in its footsteps.

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Although this can be said to some degree with every incremental capability leap in combat aircraft, the Global Hawk is not just another fighter or surveillance aircraft, it is an entirely new concept of operations, and what we learn from it, both the bad and the good, will find its way into even more advanced unmanned technologies of the future. In this regard, the possible existence of an even more capable and survivable secret 'RQ-180' HALE aircraft may very well have been directly born from the RQ-4 Global Hawk's learned strengths and weaknesses.

Some would say that such a statement is hypocritical as I do not give the F-35 program, and other goal missing and over-budget endeavors a similar pass. There is good reasoning behind this, beyond the much higher risk factor due to the size and cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program, it is the last in the line of almost a century of manned fighter aircraft development. It is a very mature concept that is filled with immature subsystems and design choices. The Global Hawk, on the other hand, is the first of its kind, and work done on it will directly lead to unmanned combat aircraft and other pilotless aerospace concepts that will be able to accomplish many different tasks, both military and commercial.

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Like manned spaceflight, unmanned aviation, especially on the incredible performance scale of the Global Hawk, has by its very nature an expensive learning process that has massive potential payoffs, both strategically and economically, down the line.

The Global Hawk's evolution into something that nothing can replace has already been realized in the Navy's MQ-4C Triton version of the Global Hawk, an aircraft that can scan massive swaths of the earth, while also being able to fly through bad weather and even swoop down from its high-altitude perch to take a closer look at a target. The MQ-4C will greatly enhance our Navy's capability to execute everything from search and rescue operations to chasing pirates to targeting an enemy flotilla of ships for anti-ship cruise missile packing guided missile cruisers sailing hundreds of miles away.

This all brings us back to the Global Hawk hangar at Edwards AFB. After talking at great lengths about the program with representatives from the Global Hawk team, I begin to see what the machine before me truly was: America's first attempt at building an operational unmanned, high-altitude, long endurance sensor truck.

Sure, it is not perfect, and maybe it cannot best one the most lauded and historically significant aircraft in history at a job that it has mastered over close to 55 years of continuous operation, but it is coming damn close. If it can accomplish that feat, then not just the Global Hawk, but unmanned HALE technology in general, will be doing things that we never thought were possible in the not so distant future.

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And this is precisely why the Global Hawk, with all its troubles and tribulations, is worth our continued investment and support. Not necessarily because what it currently is, a near analogue to the U-2 and a great companion to it, but what the technology undoubtedly will, or maybe even already has, become.

Pictures via DoD, Northrop Grumman

Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com