USAF requests early retirement from Global Hawk drone

The reason given is to replace unmanned aircraft with penetrating platforms of 5th and 6th generations. Rumors point to the RQ-180 stealth drone

The US Air Force is trying to convince Congress to take a good portion of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drones out of service within a maximum of two years.

According to USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, “Legacy ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platforms, once considered irreplaceable to operations, are often unable to survive or deliver needed capabilities on competition-relevant timelines.”

The solution, according to him, is to replace them with a mix of alternatives that includes penetration platforms and 5th and 6th generation capacity. “These legacy platforms must be phased out, with resources used to invest in modern and relevant systems. Working together, we must take calculated risk now in order to reduce the greater future risk,” added Brown to the House Appropriations Committee last week.

The report raised suspicions that the Air Force is seeking more resources to introduce the RQ-180, a spy drone developed by Northrop Grumman (also the manufacturer of the Global Hawk).

RQ-180 unnofficial rendering

The USAF’s request is for divestments in the RQ-4 Block 30 models, which would be directed to more advanced programs. In fiscal year 2021, the service asks to retire 21 of these drones, in addition to three Block 20 aircraft. Only the more modern Global Hawk Block 40 will be kept in service.

However, Congress has barred the request until the Pentagon has proven that the withdrawal of unmanned planes will not harm USAF operations.

Appearance of the RQ-180 in 2020

The Global Hawk was developed by the USAF as a High-Altitude Long Endurance platform with all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. The prototype flew in 1998 and has been in service since the early 2000s.

Powered by a Rolls Royce F137-RR-100 turbofan, the RQ-4 has a wingspan of almost 40 meters and a maximum take-off weight of 14,628 kg. It can fly at 629 kph and reach 18,000 meters of altitude. Its autonomy is one of the great highlights, with the ability to remain flying for 34 hours.

However, the Global Hawk can be shot down without much difficulty if it is flying in a contested environment, so the Air Force is in a hurry to replace it with a more advanced aircraft.

This drone would be the RQ-180, a flying wing of expressive dimensions, but which differs precisely by its stealth capacity. Reports have indicated for some time that the Northrop Grumman drone has reached operational capacity. In November 2020, an alleged RQ-180 was photographed at high altitude over Edwards Air Force Base.

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