After nearly a decade of debate, deliberation and study Japan has decided to order three American RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs. The first of these will enter service in 2019. What finally persuaded Japan to buy was the usefulness of American RQ-4s during natural disasters in and around Japan. In particular the Japanese were impressed at the speed with which an American RQ-4 was able to produce large quantities of detailed photos of the portions of Japan devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The RQ-4 has shown up for subsequent typhoons in the region and some have operated regularly out of a Japanese airbase. Most Japanese officials are now satisfied that they are getting a very useful aircraft, especially when the need to keep an eye on Japanese warships is also demanding more aerial surveillance, something the RQ-4 excels at.
This sale is part of a comeback for the RQ-4. For years the U.S. Air Force, the primary RQ-4 user, was dissatisfied with the performance and operating costs of the RQ-4, pointing out that in some cases (like the U-2) manned aircraft were cheaper and in the case of the U-2, carried better sensors and were thus more useful. In response the RQ-4 manufacturer brought down the costs and increased reliability. Despite that criticism manufacturer Northrop Grumman continued to find customers for its RQ-4. In large part that’s because the RQ-4 has been much improved since 2001 and especially since 2010. The RQ-4 has become more reliable, efficient and flexible. Several of the new customers (like South Korea and Japan) want to use it for maritime reconnaissance, something the U.S. Navy is already doing. The cost of operating the RQ-4 has also been greatly reduced over three years, from $40,600 an hour to $18,900. That happened largely because there were more RQ-4s in service and each was flying more hours. That spread overhead costs over more flight hours. There was also a sharp reduction (by $14,000 an hour) in contractor support costs, largely brought on by improved aircraft reliability. Another factor driving this decline in costs was the U.S. Air Force threat to get rid of many RQ-4s because it was cheaper, per flight hour, to use the much older manned U-2s. Now that is no longer the case and the air force has backed away from dropping its RQ-4s and instead wants to retire the U-2s instead.
Back in 2011 the U.S. Air Force very publically gave up on the RQ-4. This came in the form of an air force announcement that they had stopped buying the RQ-4. Not only that but ten of the thirty-one Block 30 models already ordered were cancelled. None of the planned Block 40 aircraft were to be built. Global Hawk remained in production because there were other users who were not as displeased as the air force. The U.S. Navy is buying over fifty MQ-4C “Triton” BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) models. Triton is to enter service by 2017.
While the RQ-4 has always been hailed as a revolutionary and successful system, most of the recon and surveillance jobs in the last decade were handled by the more reliable, cheaper, smaller and numerous Predator and Reaper UAVs. Meanwhile, the air force was having more and more problems with the RQ-4, and that led to the public denunciation of the RQ-4 and Northrop Grumman. But as the war on terror dies down and the potential opponents include countries with air defenses, the higher flying RQ-4 becomes more valuable.
The 2011 decision was the result of the air force and the manufacturer feuding over design, cost and quality control issues. The last straw was the unreliability of the new Block 30 models. This renewed Department of Defense threats to cancel the program. But manufacturer Northrop Grumman lobbyists have made sure that key members of Congress knew where Global Hawk components were being built and how many jobs that added up to. While that delayed the RQ-4 Block 30 cancellation it did not stop it. The air force was placated for a while when Northrop Grumman fixed some of the problems (some of which the manufacturer said don't exist or didn't matter). The Block 30 was supposed to be good to go, but the air force was not convinced and decided that Block 30 was just more broken promises. Congress was also tired of all the feuding and being caught between Northrup lobbyists and exasperated air force generals. Then there was political decision to cut the defense budget over the next decade. Something had to go.
Things had started off on a more promising note. The RQ-4 was still in development on September 11, 2001, but was rushed into action. The first production RQ-4A was not delivered until August, 2003. Although the RQ-4 could stay in the air for up to forty-two hours, all of them had only amassed about four-thousand flight hours by 2004. But most of those four-thousand hours, which were originally planned to involve testing of a new aircraft, were instead used to perform combat missions. Global Hawk also got to fly under difficult conditions, something an aircraft still being developed would not do.
In 2008, an RQ-4A Global Hawk made the first non-stop crossing of the Pacific, flying twelve-thousand kilometers from California to Australia in twenty-three hours. The Global Hawk has previously crossed the Pacific in several hops but it always had the endurance to do it non-stop. In the last decade RQ-4s have flown over 60,000 hours, most of that combat missions, and many of them from Persian Gulf bases. The latest models can fly twenty hour missions, land for refueling and maintenance, and be off in four hours for another twenty hours in the sky. But the reliability issues with the Block 30 made the longer missions infrequent for a while. Otherwise, the RQ-4 has been very reliable, with aircraft being ready for action ninety-five percent of the time. An RQ-4 can survey about four-thousand square kilometers an hour. It’s capabilities like this that have caused Europe to reconsider its cancellation of an RQ-4 order (mainly because of local laws banning unmanned aircraft under certain conditions).
The U.S. Air Force pays over $150 million for a fully equipped RQ-4, but only about 35 percent of that is for the UAV itself. Include payload (sensors and communications) and development costs and it nearly triples. The B version is about ten percent larger (wingspan of 42.3 meters/131 feet, and 15.5 meters/48 feet long) than the A model and can carry an additional two tons of equipment. To support that, there's a new generator that produces 150 percent more electrical power. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours, mostly because of design flaws. It was those flaws and delays in fixing them that got the air force so angry. The first three RQ-4Bs entered service in 2006, with some of those flaws still present, and it took over five years to clear that up.
At thirteen tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs more than twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful, and expensive, sensors than other UAVs. These sensors comprise most of the cost of the aircraft. The spy satellite quality sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over 20,000 meters (60,000 feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude.