First Global Hawk UAV for Japan Takes to the Air

 - April 19, 2021, 6:02 AM
The initial RQ-4B Block 30 for the JASDF is seen over California on its April 15 maiden flight. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman has conducted the first flight of an RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). The maiden sortie took place on April 15 from Palmdale in California, which is the site of the company’s Global Hawk factory within Air Force Plant 42.

“The unarmed RQ-4B Global Hawk will provide Japan with on-demand intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information supporting the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s missions of protecting borders, monitoring threats and providing humanitarian assistance in times of need,” said Jane Bishop, vice president, and general manager, autonomous systems, Northrop Grumman. “This successful first flight is a significant milestone in delivering Global Hawk to our Japanese allies.”

Japan’s acquisition of the Global Hawk has been a protracted affair that dates back to an initial interest raised around 2010. In November 2014 the RQ-4 was officially selected over the General Atomics Guardian-ER to answer the JASDF's requirement for a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV to bolster its intelligence-gathering capability. U.S. State Department approval for the sale of three RQ-4Bs was given a year later. Included in the approval was the installation of the Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, which includes synthetic aperture radar, infrared/electro-optical sensors and a signals intelligence suite.

A government-level contract was signed in October 2017, leading to an order being placed with Northrop Grumman the following year. Handling the acquisition on behalf of the U.S. government is the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. The $490 million order covers the three outfitted air vehicles, two ground control stations, spares, and related services.

Delivery of the RQ-4Bs is due by September 2022. In JASDF service they will be based at Misawa in Aomori Prefecture, which is home to the JASDF’s initial two squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-35As and its fleet of E-2C/D Hawkeyes. The U.S. Air Force also has a wing of Lockheed Martin F-16s based there. The Global Hawk is no stranger to the northern Honshu region, U.S. Air Force aircraft having flown around 300 hours of surveillance flights following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

With an endurance of greater than 32 hours, the Global Hawks will provide around-the-clock multi-sensor surveillance capability that enhances Japan’s ability to monitor Chinese developments, track maritime traffic, and protect its islands. The type could also play a role in missile defense.