Global Hawk used for first time to pass data to F/A-18, for attack on Iraqi missile system

More details are beginning to emerge about time-critical targeting and the compression of the sensor-to-shooter kill chain during the Iraq war. The Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle is emerging as a critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform teamed with manned fighters.

It is understood that the Global Hawk was used for the first time to pass targeting data to fighter cockpits, although indirectly via a ground control centre. During one engagement, the UAV used its Raytheon synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to cue the vehicle's AAQ-16 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor onto a partially obscured missile launcher, the target location of which was overlaid and cross-referenced with data from the LR100 electronic surveillance (ESM) system.

Data was then relayed via a Ku-band satellite link to the ground for analysis and compression before being passed to a US Navy Boeing F/A-18C Hornet, which used the information to target and destroy the Iraqi missile system hidden under a bridge. The total time from sensor detection to shooter destruction is believed to be around 20min, a good proportion of which was for man-in-the-loop target analysis.

No official details have been released by the US Air Force or Navy on the engagement or Global Hawk's performance during the conflict. In an earlier interview with coalition naval forces commander Vice Adm Timothy Clark, contrasting this war with the 1991 conflict, he noted: "More rapid analysis of the effects of an individual in the overall picture allows us to integrate the intelligence much more quickly and prosecute a more aggressive campaign."

The goal is to pass data in the air between UAV and fighter, but this faces technical and operational hurdles. Tactical datalinks have bandwidth limitations that might only be overcome with the introduction of laser communications. There is also the question of retaining a man in the loop to analyse ISR data, assess target validity and possible collateral damage, provide precise aimpoints and authorise weapons release. In the near term, the next stepis to link Global Hawk with an airborne battle management platform such as the Northrop Grumman E-8 JSTARS.

Global Hawk was employed during operations over Afghanistan to provide cueing for the much lower- flying General Atomics RQ-1B Predator UAV. The loss of two RQ-4As during the Afghanistan conflict through accidents has reduced the fleet to four vehicles, all of which are demonstrators. Only one was fully equipped with a SAR, EO/IR and ESM sensor suite for deployment to the United Arab Emirates during the Iraq war.



Source: Flight International