The U.S. Air Force continues pushing for the retirement of its oldest Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks. The service is looking to get rid of all of its remaining Block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in the next year or two.
The service says that it plans to replace those unmanned aircraft with a mixture of alternatives, including “penetrating” platforms and “5th- and 6th-generation capabilities.”
Those terms generally refer to stealthy platforms able to get past hostile air defense works to conduct operations in denied areas. This comes amid an increasing number of reports that a new, secret stealth spy drone, commonly referred to as the RQ-180, which also looks set to act as a communication and data-sharing gateway, is close to entering operational service if it hasn’t already.
“For instance, the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk was crucial to the ISR requirements of yesterday and today. However, this platform cannot compete in a contested environment,” that statement continues. “The Air Force will continue to pursue the FY21 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] RQ-4 Block 30 divestment waiver in order to repurpose the RQ-4 Block 30 funds for penetrating ISR capability. Overall, intelligence collection will transition to a family of systems that includes non-traditional assets, sensors in all domains, commercial platforms, and a hybrid force of 5th- and 6th-generation capabilities.”
At the same time, the Air Force’s comments here about “penetrating ISR capability” and “5th- and 6th-generation capabilities” strongly point to work on the RQ-180, the report on which first appeared in Aviation Week the better part of a decade ago.
In October 2019, another report from Aviation Week detailed evidence that this drone was close to entering operation service at that time if it hadn’t already. In November 2020, a picture of what may have been one of these unmanned aircraft, or a related test article, flying over the Mojave Desert appeared online.
In last year’s budget request, the Air Force sought to retire Global Hawk blocks 20 and 30 — a total of 24 aircraft — leaving RQ-4 Block 40s and the U-2 spy plane to conduct the high-altitude surveillance mission.
“The Air Force will continue to pursue the [fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act] RQ-4 Block 30 divestment waiver in order to repurpose the RQ-4 Block 30 funds for penetrating [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability,” acting Air Force Secretary John Roth and Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown said in written testimony to Congress.
However, Congress blocked the retirement of the RQ-4 unless the defense secretary certifies that the divestment of those aircraft will not prevent combatant commands from being able to accomplish their missions and that the capabilities of a Global Hawk replacement will be worth any increased operation and sustainment costs.
“Until the Air Force provides a comprehensive ISR modernization plan, addressed elsewhere in this bill, [Congress] will continue to be concerned about the sequence of retiring operational aircraft without a suitable replacement capability in place and available,” per members of the House and Senate Armed Service committees.
The service has attempted to retire the RQ-4 multiple times since 2012 and has always been batted back by lawmakers. But if House appropriators plan to oppose new attempts to divest the Block 30 drones, they showed no signs of resistance during the hearing, asking no questions about the platform’s future.
The Air Force maintains an inventory of 21 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, as well as three Block 20 drones modified to the EQ-4B Battlefield Airborne Communications Node variant.