The Northrop Grumman "Global Hawk" is a large-scale Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) utilized by the United States Air Force and Navy branches of service for long-range / high-endurance intelligence-gathering, target identification and general reconnaissance. As one of the dimensionally-larger UAVs in the American military inventory, the Global Hawk system benefits from inherently good operational ranges, allowing ground commander and warplanners the priceless quality of extended loiter times. To date, the system is fielded by both the American and German militaries while, at $104 million per unit, it has not seen large-scale production or use. As of this writing (2013) approximately 47 units are in operational service - most with the United States Air Force while a single example is in service with German forces as the "Eruo Hawk".
The Global Hawk features the most distinct form of any operational UAV today. While its general configuration is that of a conventional aircraft, the aircraft sports unique shape full of style and contours. The nose cone is bulged for the requisite sensor equipment within and well-contoured to the fuselage to promote a streamlined shape. The fuselage tapers at the rear in the usual shape. The engine is mounted atop the aft portion of the spine, identified by the intake used for aspiration of the powerplant and its exhaust port at the rear over the fuselage. The tail section is capped by two outward-angled vertical tail fins and a pair of underfuselage ventral strakes. The main wing assemblies are straight in their overall design and low-mounted along the sides of the fuselage. The Global Hawk makes use of a wholly retractable undercarriage. There are no horizontal tail planes.
The Global Hawk features an internal sensory suite provided by Raytheon and Hughes while the aircraft itself is operated through a satellite managed data link. This data link allows for full transference of information - in the form of video and pictures - to sources on the ground (when within range of ground receivers). As with most modern UAVs, the Global Hawk tracks its position via GPS and does not expose allied pilots to enemy dangers or inclement weather.
The Global Hawk has been under consideration with several US-friendly allies including Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea (and possibly India and New Zealand as well). An off-shoot of the RQ-4 was developed for the German Luftwaffe as the RQ-4B "EuroHawk". This particular model was fitted with specialized EADS reconnaissance equipment and arrived in Germany in July of 2011. The Luftwaffe intends to procure an initial batch of 5 aircraft including the existing model already in use. In service, the Global Hawk can replace larger-scale, human-crewed operational reconnaissance platforms as it would for the Germans (currently relying on the Dassault-Breguet Atlantique as its reconnaissance platform). NATO is considering the NATO AGS (Alliance Ground Surveillance) version which remains in development. As many as five may be procured by project's end.
The Global Hawk family initially arrived in the Block 0 form, the first 7 Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration Aircraft. Of these, 3 have been lost operationally while 3 were handed over to NASA and a sole example ended up as a museum piece. The Block 10 initiative saw 9 examples produced of which 2 became museum pieces, 2 were sent to NASA and 5 were handed to the United States Navy (1 example was lost operationally). The Block 20 initiative saw 6 produced for the United States Air Force of which 4 were outfitted with communications relay equipment and 2 utilized as testing platforms. The Block 30 endeavor has seen 16 aircraft built for the USAF with 31 total planned. While 21 have been approved by the US government, some 10 may be cancelled due to budget constraints. The Block 40 initiative is the latest Global Hawk form and is currently in development with 8 airframes completed.
The Global Hawk holds an aviation first as being the first unmanned aircraft to fly across the Pacific Ocean when it undertook the feat from Edwards AFB, United States to RAAF Base Edinburgh, Australia on April 24th, 2001.
The US Navy is trialing a dedicated over-water form in the "Triton" BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) variant of which 68 are optimistically planned for procurement. The aircraft has been given the formal designation of MQ-4C "Triton" with at least five Global Hawks modified for the trials with a demonstrator lost to accident in June of 2012. Should all go as planned, the USN will begin fielding these sometime in 2015.
The Global Hawk program is currently (2013) under the crosshairs in terms of the US military long-term budget. The system, while capable, has proven an expensive addition to the USAF lineup, particularly in the cost associated with operations and image transference. It may very well be decided that Northrop Grumman's product is shelved for the interim and several airframes mothballed if authorities realize the gains from such a large UAV system do not offset the program costs. The Block 40 initiative may very well not see the light of day as the USAF begins centering back on the Lockheed U-2 for its surveillance need. Northrop Grumman is attempting to streamline costs of Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft to reverse the USAF direction.