Northrop Grumman has been issued a task order to begin engineering and planning work for the repurposing of four EQ-4B Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft. Formerly used for carrying the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload, the Block 20 machines were retired from U.S. Air Force service at the end of July and have been handed over to the Department of Defense’s Test Resource Management Center (TRMC), which already has a number of RQ-4 Global Hawks.
Once modified with new sensors and communications equipment, the aircraft—dubbed Range Hawks—will be assigned to TRMC’s SkyRange program. This initiative employs remotely piloted aircraft such as the RQ-4 and MQ-9 Reaper to perform data collection and range clearance duties in support of long-range missile tests. The SkyRange test architecture allows uncrewed aircraft to capture real-time telemetry data and multi-spectral full-motion video, while also providing the range clearance and surveillance information, and meteorological data, to support launch decision-making.
SkyRange seeks to significantly expand U.S. testing capacity. Demand for missile tests has increased and continues to do so, especially in the field of hypersonic weapons. Currently, such tests are undertaken over the Pacific Ocean, supported by a fleet of vessels. These ships are aging and expensive to operate and it is time-consuming to position them correctly for tests. As a result, such tests can only be performed between four and six times per year. Moreover, the vessels are easily tracked by adversaries, alerting them to impending trials. By contrast, unmanned aircraft are cheaper to use and far more responsive to increasing test demands, as well as offering a more secure test environment.
Modification of the EQ-4Bs is to be performed at Northrop Grumman’s 35,000-sq-ft facility in the Grand Sky business park in North Dakota, where they have been stored since retirement. Sharing airfield facilities with Grand Forks AFB, which hosts the 319th Reconnaissance Wing that flies RQ-4B Global Hawks, Grand Sky is the first such location in the U.S. dedicated to unmanned air systems and also houses a General Atomics facility.
One of the drivers behind the SkyRange program is North Dakota Senator John Hoeven. “With divestment of the Global Hawk Block 20s, we’ve worked to secure a real opportunity to leverage the expertise we’ve built at Grand Sky and repurpose these aircraft to support hypersonic missile testing,” he said. “Doing so will save the armed forces time and money in developing these new missiles, as the new Range Hawks will be much more efficient than the current ship-based test range and support additional options for conducting tests.”
Hoeven is continuing to make the case for bringing the Air Force’s RQ-4B Block 30s to Grand Sky after they have been retired from service, which is likely to happen in the coming year or two. This plan could cement the facility's position as the hub of TRMC’s SkyRange program.