HALE Platforms Provide Vigilance for a Changing World (Studio)
As the US and its allies focus on the growing threat from peer competitors, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could provide ‘deterrence by detection’, according to a recent report from the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).
For Northrop Grumman, this ambition is key to the future development of the Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) platform.
The CSBA report, published in 2020, notes that in an era of renewed great power competition, ‘one of the most significant challenges the United States and its allies face is the need to deny China or Russia the ability to launch opportunistic acts of aggression against an ally or partner in the Western Pacific or Eastern Europe’.
The report proposes the use of deterrence by detection, where a network of UAS could maintain real-time, persistent situational awareness in such crucial geographic areas.
The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and its naval variant, the MQ-4C Triton, are perfectly aligned with just such a role, says Jane Bishop, vice president and general manager, autonomous systems at the US manufacturer.
Bishop explains that these systems are already a critical component of networked, global ISR collection for allied nations and mutual defence organisations.
‘As part of a system of systems, platforms such as Triton and Global Hawk can operate at a distance to provide commanders critical information to inform operations in a wide range of threat environments,’ she says.
The systems have evolved over the years to meet peer and near-peer threats.
Global Hawk will this year mark the 20th anniversary since it first entered service in November 2001. Over those two decades, Northrop Grumman has made significant strides in cyber hardening, boosting electronic warfare (EW) defences and improving aircraft survivability ‘to allow our HALE systems to continue to operate despite improving adversarial weapons capabilities’.
Global Hawk and Triton have established a global footprint, with customers and operators outside the US, including NATO Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS), the Republic of Korea, Japan and Australia.
Crucially, these systems can operate for long periods at the edge of the battlespace, performing deterrence by detection and other roles without risking personnel.
‘This not only allows commanders to assume a higher level of operational risk but provides strategic decision-makers a variety of options, diplomatically or militarily, to respond to an attack on these high-value assets,’ Bishop says.
Such systems do not operate in a technological vacuum: the past 20 years have also seen rapid developments in the use of space as an operational domain, with low-cost satellites now able to perform a wide range of observational roles.
However, spacecraft will complement HALE UAS, not replace them, Bishop argues. Operational commanders do not have direct control over satellites and may not always receive requested support. Conversely, Global Hawk and Triton systems belong to the operational commander and can be tasked as necessary to meet operational needs.
This gives him or her an unblinking, ‘pseudo-satellite capability that can enable joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) and/or distributed maritime operations’, Bishop says.
When Triton reaches full operational capability, it will also provide the commander with ‘the ability to descend through clouds to provide levels of detail and fidelity at a scope and scale not available through satellites’.
Global Hawk and Triton have evolved in numerous ways in recent years. For example, Global Hawk’s Ground Station Modernization Program (GSMP) replaces its legacy Mission Control Elements (MCEs) with enhanced Mission Control Segments (MCSs).
Beyond this, it replaces the 20-year ground segment with modern operator interfaces and enhanced cyber protection. At the same time, the human-machine interface and underlying software have also been improved, among a wide range of other improvements. GSMP completed first flight for the US Air Force in 2020, adding several successful test flights since, and is expected to finish fielding in 2022.
Bishop points to several other developments to support the future evolution of Global Hawk/Triton for the battlespace of the future.
Such efforts include DYNAMO (Dynamic Mission Operations), which leverages advanced air vehicle and ground software from another Northrop Grumman UAS programme to provide agile mission planning for the Global Hawk ISR system.
Additionally, the company recently received a research and development (R&D) contract to integrate targeting software into the Triton system, Bishop adds.
More generally, Northrop Grumman is working on fielding its systems and technology updates more quickly through the use of Agile Integrated Functional Capability (IFC), a methodology that seeks to deliver enhancements through continuous three-month, iterative improvements.
It’s not just the platforms themselves that are evolving; it’s also the on-board technology. For example, Bishop points to the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), which the company describes as ‘a persistent gateway in the sky’, distributing communication across all participants in a battle.
Recent improvements to the system include making its data rates ten times faster, integrating new automation software to streamline communications and improve situational awareness, and implementing new military standard communications protocols, Bishop says.
BACN is a clear example of a Northrop Grumman technology designed with the future battlefield in mind, where deterrence by detection could be essential.
Systems focused on supporting JADC2 – also known as multi-domain operations (MDO) or joint all-domain operations (JADO) – will be key, giving US forces and their allies ‘the ability to see, understand, and organise the battlespace across all-domain boundaries, agnostic of platform, service, or functional lane’, Bishop says.
Global Hawk could act as a high-altitude edge node in multiple constructs in this future operational environment, with wing hardpoints enabling flexible mission expansion by providing additional payload capacity.
Beyond this, communications will be modernised to increase data bandwidth and enable protected, secure communications, while automatic target recognition (ATR) will enhance the utility of data collection and the dissemination of that data.
These are just some of the technology upgrades the company envisages in the coming years, says Bishop, as the company works to support the US and its allies in a rapidly changing strategic landscape.
‘The agile, technologically-advanced architecture of the future requires a close partnership between DoD and industry, and Northrop Grumman is proud to support services and agencies in rapidly bringing new capabilities to the joint forces,’ Bishop concludes.
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