The Global Hawk at 15

Flashback to 15 years ago and there is little chance that news coming from that time will be laden in anything other than the context of the 11 September attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.

The event changed a number of things in the social, political and defence spheres, but it is to the latter that we nod our head: the first deployment of the Global Hawk UAV over Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

To mark the occasion Northrop Grumman released a film detailing the birth of the platform, its early introduction into service, the uncertainty of whether it will actually work and the missions that helped to answer this question.

The Global Hawk landed at Al Dhafra airbase on 11 November, a date cemented in the Western World as the day the Great War ended in 1918, and would itself be caught up in one of the newest conflicts of the 21st Century just nine days later.

Commenting about the occasion Mick Jaggers, the programme lead for Global Hawk and a Northrop Grumman VP, said that the system ‘went to war’ soon after the attacks in 2001 and has since ‘never come home’.

Since then the platform has matured and is currently testing and integrating a range of new sensors and payloads, including the SYERS and MS-177.

Indeed, the addition of the MS-177 is what Northrop officials told this writer recently is one aspect of a wider programme of work to increase capability while driving down costs. Integration of the system into the Global Hawk is currently underway in a classified laboratory but officials did say that it would be tested in the field by the end of the year.

One way that the company is looking to keep operating costs down, while at the same time dealing with an 83% increase in flying hours, is through common and open architecture systems. One official said that they ‘couldn’t talk to the US Air Force [about systems] unless is was open architecture’.

Originally designed to support DARPA evaluation of HALE aircraft, the Global Hawk demonstrator first flew on 28 February, 1998.

In July this year the system surpassed 200,000 flight hours. The US Air Force’s Global Hawks logged 88% of those flight hours with the remaining flown by NASA, Germany’s full scale demonstrator and the US Navy’s broad area maritime surveillance aircraft systems.

For Jaggers the Global Hawk has come a long way from a drawing on a piece of paper in 1995.

‘The tragic events of 9/11 caused the system to be put in operation five years ahead of schedule and it took only a few missions 15 years ago for the value of Global Hawk to be realised.

‘The future is bright… The need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is ever increasing and Global Hawk delivers a persistent, long-range and cost-effective solution.’

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