Staff Sgt. Michael Delaune reviews a post-flight checklist for the Global Hawk. The Air Force will deploy Global Hawks to Japan this summer as part of the shift toward the Pacific and a heavier reliance on the unmanned plane. (Master Sgt. Jason Tudor/Air Force)
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The RQ-4 Global Hawk, the massive surveillance drone once targeted for extinction and now considered by the Air Force as the answer for future intelligence needs, is expanding its reach into the Pacific this year with its first deployment to Japan.
Two Global Hawks, currently stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, will deploy to Misawa Air Base, Japan, from May to October, along with about 40 personnel, according to Pacific Air Forces.
The mission “further contributes to the security of Japan and the region,” PACAF spokeswoman Maj. Jillian Torongo said.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that this deployment is an example of the shift to the Pacific and the Air Force’s growing reliance on the Global Hawk.
“We’ll have the first deployment of the Global Hawk to Japan later this year. And so I think we’re doing more and more with our partners,” Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee on March 14. “The aircraft is performing very, very well.”
The Global Hawk already has experience flying over Japan. It was used to assist Japan in disaster relief and recovery following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The aircraft also assisted in the humanitarian response to last year’s tsunami in the Philippines.
Japan is a natural fit for the Global Hawk, which will likely focus on maritime patrol missions in the region, said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research.
Japanese ships in the past few years have encountered Russian and Chinese air and naval forces in international waters in the South China Sea. Global Hawks will be able to keep an eye on the sea and help “reinforce U.S. security commitments there,” Grant said.
“For a long time, there were theater commanders who really wanted [Global Hawks],” she said. “That’s what we’re seeing in Japan, it deploying to a theater than needs more [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].”
The Global Hawk’s current sensor payload is geared well toward maritime surveillance, Grant said. The March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in the region shows the importance of maritime surveillance and how hard it can be to pinpoint things in the water, she said.
The deployment comes as the Air Force has switched its position from pushing to retire the Global Hawk fleet to now retiring the U-2. The Air Force said recent budget numbers have shown that the Global Hawk has dropped its price per flying hour to the point that it would be a better investment to keep the drone flying.
The Air Force, if its request is approved, will invest almost $500 million in a universal payload adapter to use the U-2’s sensors on the Global Hawk. That work could be used this year to begin the transition for some of the “specialty sensors,” including a scanning radar and optical bar camera, Welsh said.