Air Force Global Hawk Drone May Fly to 2040 With New Sensors, More Autonomy
VIDEO: Pentagon & Raytheon Innovate New "Cyber Resilience" Tools
by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) During Operation Iraqi Freedom more than 15 years ago, former Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Myers described integrated, multi-platform attack as a kind of “fusion,” describing how at the time prototype Global Hawk drones were used to gather real-time intelligence data and network video-feed sensor data to other airborne platforms through ground-based command and control.
A Global Hawk, Myers explained, could obtain crucial, time-sensitive war data and network the ISR data to several assets such as an Air Force JSTARS surveillance plane, known as the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
While a mere prototype at the time, the Global Hawk drone functioned in combat as a warzone sensor node able to find and transmit high-value targeting data, a development which one could say provided a foundation of sorts for the years that followed. This use of the term “fusion,” it might easily be said, could be described as almost a kind of foreshadowing or anticipatory insight regarding what was to unfold in following years. Myers description therefore, might correctly be described as ahead of its time, given the Air Force’s current push toward greater ISR multi-node, cross-platform and cross-domain sensor data networking.
Sensor fusion, a term often used to describe the computer-enabled data organization and analysis enabled by the F-35, can be viewed in terms of a multi-year trajectory or progression wherein new data-sharing and securing ISR technologies have successively been improved and sent to war. The advent of AI-empowered computer algorithms, breakthrough levels of autonomy and secure, yet decentralized applications of command and control have greatly transformed the realm of the possible regarding the wartime use of ISR.
All of the years of drone flights refined, cultivated and built Myer’s description of fusion, a technical maturation now reaching a culmination of sorts through the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management Systems program.
For example, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman are pioneering upgraded ground-based command and control systems for the Air Force’s Global Hawk drone designed to expedite man-machine interface, enable multi-platform interoperability, reduce latency and provide the technical foundation for continued software upgrades to improve sensing range, image resolution and data management.
The new Global Hawk Ground Station Modernization Program took its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in December, 2020. The system, built by Northrop Grumman, is said by developers to transform the “underlying software, paving the way for interoperability with other Air Force systems, enhanced responsiveness to ad hoc tasking and lower impact update in the future.”
Increasing or accelerating what the Northrop statement called “ad hoc” tasking seems quite significant as it leverages new levels of emerging autonomy and on-the-spot mission adjustments made possible by advanced computer algorithms. Global Hawk autonomy, according to Northrop developers, begins with the click of a mouse which directs the aircraft to start its engine, take off and conduct its reconnaissance missions.
The new drone control system also incorporates new cockpit displays and emerging cyber-hardening technologies.
The Global circles above hostile terrain searching for enemy targets for up to 40-hours on a single mission, zooming in high fidelity, long-range sensors able to monitor the training, force positioning and weapons activities of potential adversaries. Perhaps of greatest significance, the Air Force Global Hawk finds and transmits time sensitive crucial warzone targeting information, a long-standing technical capability perhaps at least in part explaining why the Air Force is putting more money into upgrading and sustaining its current fleet of 34 drones.
Through a recent deal with Global Hawk maker Northrop Grumman, the Air Force is expanding modernization of its drone fleet to include retrofitting the platforms with cutting edge sensor technologies. The drone, which continues to operate in the Pacific and other strategically-vital global hotspots, is now being outfitted with a new generation of multi-spectral imaging sensors, Northrop officials say.
“ISR can be a strong deterrent when an adversary knows that we are observing their training, that we know what they can or can’t do from an operational perspective, and that we have a good idea how they will act in battle,” Leslie Smith, Vice President, Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman, told Warrior.
Smith’s comments align with a longstanding Air Force conceptual emphasis that there continues to be an “insatiable demand” for ISR from global combatant commanders. Not only is there a need for pure volume when it comes to sustained “persistent eye” operations above high-value terrain, but the Air Force and Northrop Grumman have also been working on new generations of command and control technology for organizing, analyzing and processing sensor data, a technical procedure referred to as PED, or Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination. The goal with this is to engineer advanced algorithms able to sift through hours of drone video feeds and sensor information to identify moments of relevance for human operators, thus saving airmen hours of work and therefore freeing them up to expend cognitive and operational energy toward more critical operations. This kind of technical capacity also better fortifies the cross-force networking of intelligence data in real time, serving the Air Force cutting edge push toward massively decreasing sensor to shooter time.
Global Hawks, Northrop developers say, have flown as many as 300,000 operational hours over the last 20 years and, its makers report, will be able to fly and operate well into the 2040s and beyond. The average age of the U.S. Air Force Global Hawk is 8 years.
“The Global Hawk aircraft is made from composite and metallic materials that allow each aircraft to fly for many tens of thousands of operational hours, more than the average aircraft,” Smith explained.
While a large platform, its high altitude mission ability, coupled with long-range sensor apertures enable it to conduct high-risk missions in areas where lower altitude drones might be vulnerable to destruction from enemy air defenses or EW. Sensor technology is also changing at what could be called a staggering rate, meaning smaller and smaller hardware systems are increasingly able to massively improve image resolution and greatly extend detection and sensing ranges. The Global Hawk has also provided the technical infrastructure to the now operational maritime variant of the drone, called the Triton. Being configured with specially configured maritime sensors and an ability to change altitude in icy or adverse weather conditions, the Triton aligns with and complements Global Hawk surveillance technologies.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.