Warplanes: Global Hawk Base in the Pacific

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May 8, 2007: The Department of Defense has awarded a contract to build maintenance facilities, for the Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle, at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The facilities, which will be built by May 2009 and which will cost just under $42 million, will make Global Hawks much more effective in the Western Pacific. How? The new base for up to seven of the high-endurance UAVs will place them much closer to potential hot spots in the region.

One might ask why the military would spend $42 million on facilities to create a Global Hawk base in Guam when the UAV has a range of over 21,000 kilometers. That figures makes it capable of flying non-stop across the Pacific from California. The reason is simple. The longer a plane or UAV has to travel to get to where it is needed, the less persistent it is. By building appropriate basing and maintenance facilities at Guam, the United States will be able to cut over 12,000 kilometers from a Global Hawk's round trip from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii to a crisis in the Western Pacific (say Taiwan or Korea). That means a Global Hawk will have 20 hours more endurance over the crisis area.

How important can cutting the distance - and improving a plane's persistence be? One example can be seen in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The Me-109 did not have the endurance to properly escort German bombers in that battle - often that had as little as fifteen minutes of combat time before they had to leave the area. This lack of endurance not only cost the Germans bombers due to insufficient escort, it left German fighter pilots little margin for error. If they lost track of time, their fighters ran out of fuel. This was often very bad for the fighter, and sometimes bad for the pilot, too.

For the Global Hawk's mission of reconnaissance, cutting the distance is important for one other reason. It reduces the time needed to send a replacement UAV if one is lost due to enemy action or mechanical problems. Sound far-fetched? Not really. During the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, at least two Global Hawks were lost, and the UAV suffered a failure rate of 167.7 per 100,000 hours. Having a Global Hawk base on Guam means that a replacement can be on station ten hours sooner than one launched from Hawaii would be. That is a much smaller gap in reconnaissance coverage over the Western Pacific.

It also saves time when a Global Hawk has something broken. By doing maintenance at Andersen Air Force Base, not only can a Global Hawk with a problem avoid a twenty-hour round trip, there is less chance that the Global Hawk will have an in-flight emergency that will lead to the loss of the UAV. This not only saves time, it saves money (a Global Hawk costs about $123 million) - even before one considers how much fuel that twenty-hour trip will require.

In short, the new base makes the Global Hawk much more effective in the Western Pacific for about a third of the cost of one new Global Hawk. Any way you slice it, that's a real bargain. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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