RQ4 Global Hawk completes operational test flights.

Global Hawk

The Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude jet-powered UAV completed its operational test flights in December, a senior Air Force official said.

Analysts are currently poring though data gathered during the initial operational test and evaluation flights, and a final report is due to Air Combat Command in March, the officer said in an e-mail on Tuesday. The Global Hawk fleet is expected to begin operations at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., in April after the test-flight results are officially certified, the senior official said.

Asked for comment, Air Force program officials confirmed only that a final report is due to Air Combat Command in March.

Northrop Grumman officials declined to comment because the Air Force has not officially announced that the RQ-4 has completed its test phase. Northrop is the prime contractor for the Global Hawk.

The operational tests involved six Block 30s and one Block 20 Global Hawk fitted with electro-optical and infrared cameras and synthetic aperture radars. One of the Block 30s also carried an Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload.

The Global Hawk is slated to replace the decades-old U-2 ISR aircraft, which service officials are forbidden to retire until they can certify that no capability will be lost.

Philip Finnegan, an analyst at the Teal Group based in Fairfax, Va., said the completion of the operational test phase is a step toward full procurement of the system, and toward easing DoD concerns about the UAV’s price and schedule.

Still, the U-2’s retirement date remains uncertain.

In August, Brig. Gen. Robert Otto, the Air Force’s ISR director, said the U-2 would remain in service until the Block 30 Global Hawk fleet is able to gather signals intelligence data.

Col. Paul McGillicuddy, who commands the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, which flies both the U-2 and Global Hawk, had said in the summer that the ASIP pod will be available operationally for the Global Hawk in 2013.

As recently as last fall, Air Force officials said the U-2 would serve past 2013.

The Air Force hopes to buy 42 of the Block 30 signals-intelligence-gathering Global Hawks.

A further 22 Block 40 aircraft would be equipped with the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program radar, which provides very high resolution synthetic aperture radar images and ground moving target indication similar to an E-8 JSTARS radar plane.

Additionally, the Air Force will buy six Block 20 aircraft to carry cameras, radars and the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node package.

The service will phase out its seven Block 10 aircraft, which carry less-capable sensors and have a smaller airframe.

Air Force Times

By Dave Majumdar – Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Jan 25, 2011 18:33:34 EST