YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Moving U.S. unmanned aircraft from Guam to mainland Japan this summer will put them closer to the places they will monitor.
Officials have not revealed exactly where the Northrup Grumman Global Hawks will fly to from Misawa Air Base, Japan, other than “various places around the Pacific.”
However, the base in northern Japan is a lot closer to the Korean peninsula and other potential hot spots than Guam, the aircraft’s home.
The officer who oversees Global Hawk operations worldwide from Grand Forks Air Base, N.D., — 69th Reconnaissance Group commander Col. Lawrence Spinetta — said the aircraft will arrive at Misawa next month and operate there until October.
“Getting further east cuts down on transit time and helps avoid some weather,” Spinetta said.
Former Air Force officer Ralph Cossa, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii, said North Korea is the most likely surveillance target.
The reclusive, nuclear-armed state has been increasingly unstable since leader Kim Jong Un assumed power two years ago. It has launched missiles into the Sea of Japan and flown its own crude drones into South Korean airspace this year. Also there appear to be preparations underway for the North’s fourth nuclear weapons test.
Cossa said Misawa is an ideal place to base the Global Hawks since it already hosts manned surveillance planes and has plenty of room for more aircraft.
“I’m not sure there are a lot of advantages to Guam (as a base for Global Hawk operations),” he said.
One reason to use Misawa is to provide reassurance to Japan, which feels threatened by Chinese belligerence over disputed off-shore islands, without deploying more assets to Okinawa, where there is vocal opposition to the presence of U.S. forces, he said.
Spinetta said only a small contingent of pilots and maintenance personnel will travel to Misawa to operate the Global Hawks.
“A runway is a runway,” he said. “We send a small footprint downrange. The plane takes off on line-of-sight links, and then we operate it from the States. It requires a very small footprint of forward-deployed airmen.”