Send in the Global Hawk

In combat trials, the RQ-4A unmanned reconnaissance aircraft showed intelligence analysts what it means to have eyes like a Hawk.

The RQ-5 Hunter filled the services' UAV role in the '90s and since March 2003 has supported coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. USAF

JOHN CASEY, SYSTEMS ENGINEER, IS AN IMPROBABLE WARRIOR. And yet like many Americans struck by a rush of patriotism in the fall of 2001, he went off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq when the U.S. government asked for his help. “I had no military experience,” he says, “aside from seeing some of my grandfather’s World War II medals.” A Purple Heart is among them.

Casey’s weapon was his engineering knowledge of a Raytheon-built sensor system that captures images from an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, the Global Hawk. Northrop Grumman had already delivered a series of Global Hawk prototypes to the Air Force for evaluation. As part of the program to assess their performance in high-altitude reconnaissance, Raytheon was contracted to deliver ground support equipment and the aircraft’s sensors—but not Casey or his co-workers. The evaluation was scheduled to conclude in 2005, and if the Air Force gave a thumbs-up, production Global Hawks would either replace or complement piloted aircraft, like Lockheed’s imaging recon U-2, in monitoring more traditional foes, such as North Korea. Ironically, the program had become mired in uncertainty and budget questions only one day before hijacked airliners were flown into buildings in New York and Washington.

The events of 9/11 changed everything, creating challenges and opportunities for both Casey and the Global Hawk. For Casey, change came in the form of a formal request from Northrop Grumman to Raytheon in the fall of 2001. The Air Force needed help mobilizing the Global Hawk for Operation Enduring Freedom, the multi-national effort to rid Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. In particular, Northrop Grumman wanted Raytheon to find a way to reroute the Global Hawk on a moment’s notice so it could zoom in on targets of interest.

Which was asking a lot. The Global Hawk had been designed to fly a route with the location of targets, the sensors of choice, and the resolution levels for the individual pictures programmed days or months ahead of time; the military calls such planned operation “flying the black line.” But because the aircraft has a 50-megabit-per-second satellite communication link, the ground-based pilot could quickly change the Global Hawk’s course and aim its sensors at a developing situation, and analysts receiving the sensors’ data could suggest targets to commanders, who could send in the shooters within minutes.

The pilots don’t really fly the Global Hawk so much as manage it. The aircraft’s ground station uses computers instead of traditional flight controls, and a flight plan can be executed with a few clicks of a mouse. At the time of Enduring Freedom, the aircraft had some rerouting capability, but the software needed to revise the flight plan and aim the sensors was not in place, nor had the contract called for any.

Raytheon had just the ticket, however. The company had developed for its own use a Data Analysis Workstation, which put the sensors through their paces in the lab and on test flights. DAWS could be beefed up so that the Global Hawk could be redirected on the fly. The upgrade would require software modifications and a new workstation next to the Raytheon-built Mission Control Element, which originally was meant to house a pilot, a mission planning expert, and a communications engineer. The pilot had originally been tasked with managing the aircraft and the sensors in accordance with the black-line mindset; now, the MCE would have a sensor operator to share the workload.

The timeline was tight: Military planners wanted the revised system made combat-ready in 90 days. And they also would need some brave engineers who knew the DAWS inside and out—experts like Casey—to drop everything and take the system into battle as sensor operators.

Though catapulting a flight system from developmental status directly to war-ready standing is unusual, it is not without precedent, and the practice appears to be less of a taboo when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles. Operation Enduring Freedom presented some formidable challenges that required some measured risk-taking. In testimony to Congress in 2003, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche recalled: “We go to General Franks [then commander of the U.S. Central Command]. And we said to him, ‘We have a number of unmanned or unattended aircraft or remotely piloted aircraft that are not ready for prime time. May we employ them in Afghanistan and learn?’ ”

For the Global Hawk, early fielding looked like it might be worth the risk. When planners studied the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance plans for Afghanistan—taking into account the availability of aircraft like the U-2, the Rivet Joint electronic surveillance and warfare aircraft, and the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (better known as JSTARS), which monitors ground movement—they realized they would come up short for 24-hour, all-weather operations. The goal was seamless surveillance of the ground. Could the Global Hawk help? It certainly had the endurance.

In April 2001, Air Vehicle 5 (AV-5), the fifth of seven Global Hawk prototypes, became the first unmanned powered aircraft to cross the Pacific, flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Adelaide, Australia, on its way to participate in exercises with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force and Navy. The 7,500-nautical-mile transit set several world records and was eclipsed only by the Global Hawk’s performance in the May and June exercises: Over a period of six weeks, the aircraft flew 13 out of 14 planned exercises, a total of nearly 10 days aloft, with some flights lasting more than a day.

The trip also gave planners the chance to try breaking out of the black-line box: Small civilian vessels under way in the area of operations served as unplanned targets that the aircraft was able to detect, track, and image. “We got a glimpse of how to interact with a pop-up target,” says Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman’s director of Global Hawk new business. Walby, a former Air Force colonel, is no stranger to high-altitude reconnaissance. In the mid-1990s, the U-2 pilot served as commander of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base in California. Walby says that in those days, he and his fellow pilots would “pop the champagne” every time a UAV “screwed up.” He told Air Force News at the time that he saw UAVs eventually complementing U-2s and other reconnaissance aircraft, “but not in the near future.” As commander of the Global Hawk detachment during the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, Walby would have a change of heart.

The Global Hawk’s performance and endurance in Australia matched what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had in mind when in the early 1990s it launched the Tier II+ program, seeking a contractor that could build an unmanned aircraft with 24-hour endurance and an ability to operate at 65,000 feet, about 12 miles high and well above most light surface-to-air missiles, while collecting data with electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic-aperture-radar sensors. In 1995, having studied 14 proposals, DARPA selected the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical Global Hawk. (Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical in 1999.) The first flight of AV-1 took place at Edwards Air Force Base on February 28, 1998, after which the program shifted from DARPA to the Air Force; the program was managed by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio. Then problems crept in: AV-2 was destroyed on a test flight at Edwards after operators sent an incorrect command, and AV-3 was damaged after a software bug boosted the taxi speed to 178 mph instead of a placid 7 mph. AV-3 was fixed, and it returned to service in 2000 along with its new siblings, AV-4 and AV-5. The aircraft’s first major cross-country flight took place that year, when AV-4 flew from Edwards to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, then across the Atlantic to Portugal to support Operation Linked Seas, a NATO naval exercise, and two joint U.S. exercises involving a carrier battle group and Marine Corps expeditionary force. A year after Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, Global Hawk production moved from San Diego to Palmdale, California.

The Global Hawk is the latest in an increasingly complex lineage of aircraft that started with munitions delivery (carrying bombs), evolved into reconnaissance platforms, and now do both. U.S. experiments with UAVs in the 1940s included a project called Operation Aphrodite, which aimed to turn heavy bombers into unmanned radio-controlled missiles carrying tons of explosives. During the Vietnam War, Teledyne Ryan Firebee unmanned aircraft flew more than 3,400 missions providing reconnaissance, night photography, communications, electronic intelligence, leaflet dropping, and detection of SAM radar sites. During Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991, the Navy and Marine Corps used Hunter and Pioneer UAVs, both derivatives of an Israeli system, to transmit battlefield images and help the Navy direct the 16-inch guns on the battleships USS Wisconsin and Missouri. Having seen the value of unmanned systems, the military funded advanced technology projects that produced the propeller-driven mid-altitude Predator and jet-powered high-altitude Global Hawk.

Air Force intelligence officials had concerns that the Global Hawk would actually provide too much data, swamping analysts with information and defocusing the effort. In a meeting on September 10, 2001, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, there had been “turmoil” as to what direction the program should take, according to Ed Walby. It didn’t help that the Pentagon’s 2003 budget at the time had no funding for the program. The confusion didn’t last long; the events of the following day upended priority lists. General John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, gave the go-ahead to deploy the Global Hawk for the Afghanistan campaign. Once that decision was made, doubts were replaced by adrenaline. At Edwards Air Force Base, where Global Hawks arrive from Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale assembly plant and are married to Raytheon sensors and tested with their transportable ground stations, engineers and technicians readied AV-3 and AV-5 for trips to the Persian Gulf, the launching point for missions over Afghanistan. At the same time, Raytheon engineers were rushing to ready the DAWS and a sensor operation workstation.

The Mission Control Element is a no-nonsense eight- by eight- by 24-foot windowless metal container with four workstations and room for a few observers. It was originally meant to be deployed by transport aircraft to a site near the action, but not too close. Along with a workstation for the pilot and a mission planning computer, the MCE has satellite and traditional radio communications. It also holds equipment that decompresses images downlinked from the Global Hawk and assembles them into mosaics, which are then transmitted to military analysts. The Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), an eight- by eight- by 10-foot container, is set up next to the vehicle’s takeoff and landing site and manned by two operators and a mission director. Its equipment duplicates that of the MCE but adds a very precise differential GPS system, which refines the satellite navigation signals Global Hawk needs to taxi, take off, and land.

What these ground stations lack in aesthetics, the aircraft more than makes up for: The size of a business jet, the aircraft is oddly awkward and yet graceful, with its bulging fuselage and glider-like wings. It can carry a 2,000-pound payload aloft for up to 35 hours. The wings, built by Vought Aircraft Industries, are made of composite materials, as is the V-tail, built by Aurora Flight Sciences. The aluminum fuselage, built by Northrop Grumman, has pressurized compartments for the sensor packages and carries a single Rolls-Royce AE 3007H turbofan engine above the tail; two similar engines power the Cessna Citation X business jet (which coincidentally costs about the same as a Global Hawk sans ground elements and sensors—about $19 million). Mounted near the nose is Raytheon’s side-looking X-band (the same wavelength as the weather radar on small jets) synthetic aperture radar, which can image single locations or track moving targets on the ground—the sensor of choice in bad weather, particularly sand storms in Iraq. The radar combines several snapshots of the ground to form a single higher-resolution image, thereby creating a virtual antenna—or “synthetic aperture”—many times larger than its actual antenna. Under the nose is the electro-optical camera, designed around charge-coupled devices similar to CCDs in video cameras; combined with it is a thermal imaging sensor—the instrument most suitable for finding people in mountainous areas, like Afghanistan.

According to Lieutenant Colonel James “Peewee” Wertz, commander of Edwards’ 452nd Test Squadron, Global Hawk pilots have to be military or civilian pilots or air crew members, like weapons officers. Wertz was responsible for testing the completed aircraft and training its pilots until last October, when flight training moved to Beale Air Force Base. Because the aircraft essentially flies itself, training focuses mainly on learning how to manage the aircraft’s systems and how to interact with other players, such as JSTARS and air traffic control. The pilots practice in simulations and live test flights at Edwards. Piloting skills are considered valuable: “There’s still a certain amount of air sense you have to have to be able to manipulate the aircraft,” says Wertz.

Buttoned up and ready to roll for Afghanistan in November 2001, the ground elements, with DAWS installed, hitched rides on Air Force heavy-lift aircraft—the MCE going to an undisclosed site in Germany and the LRE to a base somewhere in the Persian Gulf. At Raytheon, Casey and company were deploying stealthily as well. “We couldn’t tell anyone where we were going,” he says. “My parents had a phone number where they could reach me.” He departed in June 2002 as a member of the second wave of Raytheon engineers headed for the MCE.

The two air vehicles took the high road, flying from Edwards to Australia to the Persian Gulf. While the aircraft was capable of making a nonstop flight, “to do that conveniently you have to fly over certain other countries that might be reluctant to let an unmanned vehicle fly over their airspace,” says Robert Ettinger, Northrop Grumman’s manager of Global Hawk flight testing. Once it arrived and set to work, its operators were taunted by manned-aircraft crews, who called the UAV the “Global Hog” because they thought its ground support infrastructure was excessive. But Walby points out that three U-2s providing 24-hour surveillance needed 157 support personnel, while one Global Hawk achieved the same result with a staff of only 25.

The aircraft operated in Afghanistan from November 11, 2001, to September 28, 2002, flying 60 combat missions totalling 1,200 hours and collecting 17,000 images. DAWS had turned out to be a stellar performer: By the third mission, 80 to 90 percent of the targets were unplanned—“ad hocs”—made possible by DAWS.

Casey returned home in August 2002, having suffered nothing more serious than a case of food poisoning. Some of the Global Hawks weren’t as fortunate: AV-5 crashed while returning to its home base after a rudder control rod broke. AV-4 was sent in as a replacement, but it too crashed before the mission ended in September. According to Ettinger, AV-4 had an engine failure at altitude and was gliding to a landing in what looked like an obstacle-free flat area in Pakistan. Unfortunately, a 100-foot sand dune occupied the space that the maps showed to be clear.

Afghanistan, as it turned out, was just a warm-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which started in early 2003. The Enduring Freedom learning curve in Afghanistan had generated improvements: With its broadband satellite connections now proven, the MCE no longer needed to be located in-theater and was moved to Beale Air Force Base. Also, everyone involved in the “sensor-to-shooter” decision process now had a “chat room,” or instant messaging capability, which proved more useful than traditional telephone lines. In the air over Iraq would be the veteran AV-3, the lone surviving Global Hawk, with a full complement of sensors.

Raytheon’s role in Iraqi Freedom had changed as well: The Air Force wanted the company’s experts to give its officers classroom and on-the-job training during the conflict. With 90 days of “combat” experience using DAWS, Casey was picked to teach the teachers; he spent two weeks at Beale during the initial stages of the Iraq operation. His digs were much nicer on this side of the ocean. “They had CNN. They had e-mail. They had coffee. They had Pop Tarts,” he says.

Once the action started, though, the MCE became the pressure-cooker it resembles. When sandstorms raged in late March, reducing ground visibility to near zero, a JSTARS radar system pierced the sand clouds and picked up troop movement south of Baghdad. In the hours that followed, the Global Hawk team was called in for its most acclaimed mission of the war. According to Air Force Secretary Roche, JSTARS had found a line of troops and equipment moving in, using the sandstorm as cover, to reinforce the much-feared Republican Guard Medina Division. The handoff from the JSTARS to AV-3 allowed analysts connected by satellite and chat links at the Air National Guard’s 152nd Intelligence Squadron in Reno, Nevada, to see through the storm and help the air operations experts in Qatar guide fighter and bomber aircraft with GPS-guided bombs to the scene; the Medina Division was essentially neutralized.

When AV-3 returned to Edwards on May 5, 2003, the mission success symbols painted on its nose didn’t quite trumpet what the team had accomplished in only eight weeks. AV-3 alone identified 55 percent of the time-sensitive targets and led to significant destruction of Iraqi air defense equipment. It located 13 complete SAM batteries, more than 50 SAM launchers, 300 SAM canisters, and more than 70 SAM transporters. And it provided the intelligence that led to the destruction of more than 300 tanks—38 percent of Iraq’s known armored force.

While Casey is once again manning a computer at Raytheon, AV-3 continues to scour the mountains of Afghanistan, having gotten another call to duty in March for Operation Mountain Storm. Walby says its toolbox continues to grow, the latest addition being Advanced Information Architecture. With AIA, soldiers with laptops or personal digital assistants—PDAs—can use the secure chat room or a radio link to request imagery from the Global Hawk pilot, who can respond by downlinking digital maps stored in the aircraft’s 1.4-terabyte server. “It works precisely like [the Internet’s] MapQuest,” says Walby.

Managers of the Global Hawk believe the program has found its footing. The three prototypes based Stateside are completing the aircraft’s long-postponed flight test program at Edwards, while five Air Force and two Navy production models are being built in Palmdale. An upgraded version with a 3,000-pound payload capacity and longer wings (130.9 feet) is also in the works, with deliveries starting next year. The Air Force alone has ordered 51 aircraft. The number could grow as other government agencies and countries, such as Australia and Germany, consider purchases. The company hopes to highlight the Global Hawk’s achievements by flying the aircraft to next year’s Paris Air Show, retracing the 1927 route Charles Lindbergh flew in his Ryan-built Spirit of St. Louis.

As for Casey, he’s moved on to other programs at Raytheon, satisfied in part because he’s served his country. He also has his own bits of war memorabilia, his favorite being a very small metal pin that was carried aloft in a Global Hawk during Operation Enduring Freedom. On it is an image of an American flag.

The RQ-5 Hunter filled the services' UAV role in the '90s and since March 2003 has supported coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. USAF

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