MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Japanese officials and journalists got a close-up look Friday at two RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes — the first of their kind to fly out of a U.S. base in the country.
The latest American high-tech weapons to come to Japan arrived at Misawa Air Base during the past week from their home on Guam. They will fly missions out of the base until October, according to U.S. Forces Japan commander Lt. Gen. Sam Angelella.
The long-range, unarmed drones could be used to monitor Chinese military activities and possible North Korean nuclear tests.
Japanese officials and reporters brought on base to see the large Northrop Grumman aircraft received a briefing conducted by drone pilots from Detachment 1, 69th Reconnaissance Group. The tour included technical details about the aircraft and a chance to check out a control station, where drone pilots sit during missions. The control station looks like a small shipping container on wheels.
Officials used graphics to illustrate the Global Hawk’s surveillance capabilities, such as the ability to see inside buildings using an infrared camera.
One of the drone pilots, Maj. Timothy, whose full name was withheld for security reasons, pointed out the distinctive bulge near the nose of the aircraft that makes it appear a little like a whale. The dome houses a communications antenna, he said.
Those concerned about the safety of an unmanned aircraft need not worry, the major said. After more than 100,000 flight hours, the Global Hawk is far safer than manned aircraft such as jet fighters, he said.
“The aircraft flies at high altitude for the great majority of its air time, so you are out of the way of any other air traffic,” he added.
The drones are thought to be capable of operating at 60,000 feet, high above civilian traffic, which normally does not surpass 40,000 feet.
The Global Hawks will fly set routes in and out of Misawa, so they are very predictable, but they can also change course in response to commands from Japanese ground controllers, he added.
Angelella also spoke to the Japanese about the safety of the drones, which, he said, will not interfere with other commercial or military operations at Misawa.
A Japanese reporter asked whether there were concerns about flying a drone near several nuclear power plants in northern Japan. Angelella replied that flight paths have been drawn to avoid flying over sensitive areas.
The Global Hawk will support U.S. intelligence gathering throughout the Pacific theater, he said.
The drones have been used in disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, tsunami relief in Japan in 2011 and last year’s typhoon response in the Philippines. They’ve also been used to track wildfires, fight piracy and to search for abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria, Angelella said.
Favorable summer weather at Misawa was the major factor in selecting it as a base for Global Hawk flights. The proximity to places where it might conduct missions was not an issue, he said.
“This rotation is yet another action underscoring our commitment to peace, stability and security in the Asia Pacific region,” he said. “Expect to see the most technologically advanced capabilities incorporated into exercises right here in Japan.”