YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — While the U.S. military’s Global Hawk reconnaissance plane can be used to keep a watchful eye on North Korea and other adversaries, it will likely be used heavily in the Pacific region to respond to natural disasters, transnational crime and drug trafficking, according to retired U.S. Army Col. David Johnson, executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C.
The three Guam-based Global Hawks have already proven themselves as a disaster response tool when they were pressed into service ahead of schedule in March after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, said Lt. Col. Terran Reneau, of the 13th Air Force in Hawaii.
“Given that we hadn’t received full delivery of the airframes in Guam, it did remarkably well,” he said. “They had just been doing some local missions around the airfield (on Guam), but we pressed them into service much earlier than expected.”
The Air Force launched the Global Hawk from Guam within 48 hours of the disaster, and it flew continuously for 21 days, spending 300 hours on-station and 500 hours in the air including transit time to Japan, he said.
During Operation Tomodachi, the Global Hawk was able to identify passable roads so that aid could get to survivors. Using long-range and infrared cameras, the drone provided commanders with more than 3,000 images of the disaster zone — including images of survivors in need of help, Reneau said.
It also was an invaluable tool when the nuclear reactors exploded at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, he said.
“Instantly we were the eyes in the sky,” he said. “There were a lot of issues with ground cameras that were not functioning or transmitting to a wide enough audience to see what was going on.”
A launch and recovery team on Guam flew the aircraft to 50,000 feet before crews based at Beale Air Force Base in California took over, he said. The high altitude meant the crews didn’t have to worry about crashing into commercial airline traffic, which flies at around 40,000 feet. The combination of satellite and radio signals sent and received by the Global Hawk meant that the crews were able to communicate with ground controllers in Japan in the same way as manned aircraft.
“It is pretty much transparent like any other aircraft communicating with ground control,” Reneau said. “If you didn’t know better you would think there was a pilot inside.”
Another advantage of flying so high was that the Global Hawk was not affected by bad weather during Operation Tomodachi. There was an impact of cloud cover on images taken by the aircraft but, since it was on station around the clock, it was able to circle until the clouds moved.
In disasters in the Asia Pacific region, the Global Hawk is likely to be the first U.S. response, Gerhardt said.
“We are looking for opportunities to bring Global Hawk to certain situations,” he said. “Without asking anyone’s permission we can fly over international waters throughout the (Pacific) theater.”