Global Hawk is one of those drones so monumental and confounding that it becomes a perfect target for our cynical tendency to search for negatives, to decry the high cost and delight in mechanical flaws—as if any war machine could be perfect.

At 44 feet long and 27,000 pounds, Global Hawk is about as large as a medium-sized corporate jet. Pulled out of the laboratory and a testing program in 2001 to go fly over Afghanistan, it is indeed a platform—a flying bus—but really, more like a low flying satellite. It’s hardy and flexible but also built to accommodate whatever cargo is needed for the next mission: a type of sensor (and not just one), a listening device customized for a specific target, a communications relay that serves as a flying server or cell tower.

Global Hawk is “persistence” personified when it comes to the modern world of intelligence collection and surveillance. There are experimental competitors that fly higher or last longer, but none that have been the standard and essential equipment of the fighting force for 15 years. In 2014, Global Hawk flew a 34.3-hour flight, setting the endurance record for longest unrefueled flight by a U.S. Air Force aircraft.

What does the 60,000-foot-high spy in the sky do? Depending on the cameras and sensors installed, one platform is capable of imaging 40,000 square miles per mission—what’s called wide-area imagery—as well as taking some 2,000 spot images, flipping almost seamlessly between electro-optical, infrared, synthetic aperture radar, ground moving target indicator, and more; beaming imagery across the globe for immediate exploitation. A single Global Hawk consumes five times the total bandwidth used by the entire U.S. military in Operation Desert Storm in 1991—two and a half times used in the entire Kosovo war in 2009.

Flying at an altitude twice that of commercial aircraft, Global Hawk tends to fly above the weather, and the newest sensors—SAR, multispectral and hyperspectral – allow it to see through the weather. Even when the 2003 ground advance into Iraq was held up by the mother of all sandstorms, Global Hawk flying well above (and offset from) the storms produced a constant stream of intelligence where other platforms were blinded (read the excerpt from Unmanned below). Everyday, a Global Hawk might be found flying along the Iranian border, across the Korean Peninsula, in the Black Sea, down the Chinese coast.

Here’s an excerpt from my book Unmanned about the role of Global Hawk in the Iraq war:

“Using the storm as a shield, Iraqi units east of the Euphrates River changed hide sites and redeployed, constantly being bombed as they did so. Irregular fighters, the Fedayeen Saddam and the Quds Force, flooded south, as did elements of two Republican Guard divisions, moving from near Baghdad to reinforce the Medina Division, which was defending the Euphrates River crossings.... As the sandstorm dissipated, the 5th Army Corps prepared five simultaneous attacks on Iraqi forces stretching from Lake Razazah in the west to Samawah in the east, the main effort intended to skirt Iraqi defenses to the west and swing around to enter Baghdad through what the US military called the Karbala Gap. However, it looked to a blinded Iraq as if the US force would cross the Euphrates River and mount its main offensive up Highway 8, driving straight for Baghdad. On the morning of March 31, intelligence reports started coming in that the Hammurabi Republican Guard division — equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles — was moving to shore up the defense of that route. [The single Global Hawk flying during Operation Iraqi Freedom and nicknamed] Grumpy ... tracked every move. Within minutes of detecting each moving armored formation, bombs arrived. Fighters and bombers dropped satellite-guided 2,000-pound JDAMs on the Iraqis, pilots plugging in coordinates in the air. Linking directly to the bomber cockpits via chat, the Global Hawk desk provided a “last- look” assessment to confirm that Iraqi tanks were still on the intended aimpoints. Predator, together with shorter-range Hunter drones, sent back immediate bomb damage assessments. Counting tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and wheeled vehicles, the Medina division was reduced in strength from 92 to 29 percent of its equipment and personnel. Forty-eight hours later, the US 3rd Infantry Division was at Saddam International Airport in Baghdad.”

Unaffordable, lackluster performance, “not suitable and [only] partially mission capable;” that’s what the auditors and the critics all say.

The plan in 2015, almost 20 years after Global Hawk began development, is still to declare it “fully” operational, not a moment too soon since the Navy’s maritime version called Triton about to hit the oceans. Budget under attack, further procurement assaulted by even more futuristic pretenders that will be able to fly and shoot, Global Hawk just flies and flies, in some ways an old-fashioned intelligence asset that can look at the big picture or go micro when needed, the very kind of drone one would want to have even if one didn’t want to be a part of the world of spying and killing.

Fun facts about Global Hawk:

  • NASA uses the giant platform to research hurricane patterns, with the drones spending anywhere from 10-20 hours recording the development tracking storms along the East Coast. Read more and check out some interesting photos from inside the NASA Global Hawk hanger in this 2012 article from Wired. More photos can be seen at NASA’s Global Hawk Image Gallery.
  • Phase Zero sources tell us that Global Hawks flying from two different locations in the Middle East conduct almost 24/7 coverage of that area in five different mission sets. For more tidbits like this, follow us on Twitter and look for #PZintel tweets.
  • Last year, the first Global Hawk ever built completed it’s 100th mission for NASA. Tyler Rogoway of Foxtrot Alpha spent time at Edwards Air Force Base to get an idea of the physical size of Global Hawk and was struck by how, it “almost looks organic, as if it was grown, not built.”
  • South Korea, Japan and Australia have all been eager to buy Global Hawks, and a proposed 2017 expansion of Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base will allow a pair of naval Triton versions to range throughout the Pacific.
  • Little more than a week ago the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a $60.9 million contract – just for the continued development of the naval version. It’s easy to see how the price tag for DOD has easily surpassed a $10 billion price tag.

[Top photo by the author. Third photo courtesy of NASA. All other photos courtesy of the Department of Defense.]