Signing off the Northrop Grumman RQ-4AGlobal Hawk unmanned air vehicle (UAV)for engineering manufacturing development and low rate initial production has ushered in a new era of defence capabilities.

While there has been talk of handing dull and dirty jobs to unmanned platforms for years, the Global Hawk is one of the few vehicles that could potentially make this desire a reality.

Global Hawk was designed as a long-range, long-endurance asset able to gather intelligence over extended periods, something a manned-platform cannot do. Already, however, the US Air Force and the manufacturer are identifying other areas where the UAV could excel - for example, signals and other types of intelligence gathering, communications relay and acting in concert with assets such as the Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System.

Next month theRQ-4A is to cross the Pacific and the bulk of Australia to an air base near Adelaide, where it will spend a month participating in exercises and demonstrating its utility as a surveillance asset able to monitor the country's vast land mass and sea approaches.

Having been given the green light by Washington and with a major effort such as the Australian deployment under its belt, it is time for NATO and others to consider what use they can make of such a platform. In recent years a constant lesson from operations has been a need for more and better intelligence and surveillance assets, the very capability Global Hawk delivers.

As well as military tasks, Global Hawk could be used to monitor no-go areas created by the UN between warring parties, for humanitarian missions, studying the migration of refugees in areas of famine or monitoring the effects of natural disasters. Manned aircraft have made significant contributions in these areas but have always been hamstrung by limited endurance and the duty time limits to which pilots must operate. Inevitably this has led to holes in the overall picture.

Even with tight defence budgets, the utility offered by high altitude, long endurance UAVs is such that many countries should be considering an acquisition, now, and not in five or 10 years.

Source: Flight International