June is the start of the rainy season in the South Pacific, six months of storms that come in fast and unpredictable. And when the wind starts blowing, that takes its toll on U.S. intelligence-gathering far off in North Korea.
A substantial amount of the intel on the Hermit Kingdom comes from the three massive Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes based at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Because of special flight restrictions, the Global Hawks can’t fly over thunderstorms, nor, without a way to see the clouds ahead, can they go around them. So whenever a hint of bad weather arose on the route Global Hawk was assigned last year from Guam, the missions were canceled. Last year, the UAVs were grounded for an entire month, says a source with knowledge of the operation.
This susceptibility to South Pacific cyclones is adding new energy to the political hurricane raging in Washington over the future of the expensive UAVs.
It’s been a year and a half since the Air Force said it no longer needs the Global Hawk. The service argued that the UAVs, each built for more than $200 million, don’t do their jobs as well as the time-tested U-2 manned spy plane. So the Air Force wants to take the entire fleet of 18 Global Hawks and park them in the “boneyard” — the aircraft storage facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. That’s the functional equivalent of throwing 135 tons of the world’s most advanced robotic flying machines into the trash heap.