Northrop Grumman said it will upgrade
its RQ-4 Global Hawk
UAV to meet the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requirement for a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV, equipped with a high-energy laser that could destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the boost phase. While the MDA's HALE program requires a minimum altitude of 63,000ft and a payload capacity between 5,000-12,500lb (2,270-5,670kg), the RQ-4 currently can reach 60,000ft and can carry a 3,000lb payload, according to US Air Force specifications. Northrop officials acknowledge the 3,000lb limit but have also said the current configuration could reach a maximum payload of 4,000lb. The company is also looking to reduce the weight of the aircraft by removing some heavy equipment that has remained on the platform since its development in the late 1990s, rather than looking to redesign it.
Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV has established a dominant position in the High Altitude/ Long Endurance UAV market. While they are not cheap, they are uniquely capable. During Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the system flew only 5% of the US Air Force’s high altitude reconnaissance sorties, but accounted for more than 55% of the time-sensitive targeting imagery generated to support strike missions. The RQ-4 Global Hawk was also a leading contender in the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV competition, and eventually won.
The Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration Program (GHM-D or BAMS-D) aims to use the proven RQ-4 Global Hawk airframe as a test bed for operational concepts and technologies that will eventually find their way into BAMS, and contribute valuable understanding to the new field of maritime surveillance with high-flying UAVs. It’s not just a test program, however, as its remaining drones also deploy to assist the fleet in active operations.