How the US Air Force’s Biggest Drones Help Set Up Attacks on ISIS
High above Iraq and Syria, Global Hawks are undoubtedly taking images of potential Islamic State targets and snatching up radio chatter.
RQ-4 Global Hawk at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: USAF
The US Air Force has sent some of its largest aircraft to battle the Islamic State, including B-52 bombers and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy planes. On top of that, the service has sent its biggest drones to help set up attacks on the terrorist group.
On January 12 at least one RQ-4 Global Hawk sat ready to go at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. Designed to fly at high altitudes taking photographs and monitoring enemy communications, the unmanned spies have a wing span comparable to the Boeing 737 airliner.
"Global Hawks have provided coalition partners with accurate intelligence necessary for precisely striking important Da'esh facilities and supply routes," an official Air Force photo caption explained. "The multi-national coalition adheres to a very strict targeting process by systematically targeting legitimate military targets … with precision air strikes which yields precise results."
As coalition aircraft, commandos, and artillery gunners help Iraqi and Kurdish forces beat back the Islamic State, flying spooks like the Global Hawk have been keeping an eye on the situation down below.
Read more: How Will Trump Use Drone Warfare?
Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 made its first flight in 1998. After 9/11, the high-flying drones became a useful tool for commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Pacific and Latin America.
The massive Global Hawks can fly as high as 60,000 feet at a maximum speed of more than 350 miles per hour. The drones can travel over 12,000 miles on a single tank of gas, putting most points of interest within their reach.
In 2014, one of the latest models flew more than 34 hours without refueling, a record for any manned or unmanned Air Force aircraft. With a maximum takeoff weight of more than 32,000 pounds, each Global Hawk can carry a combination of powerful cameras, long-range radars, and gear to find and record radio transmissions.
All of these features make the jet-powered RQ-4 similar in many ways to the aging and iconic U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane. Since 2011, the Pentagon has actively considered whether or not it should replace all of its remaining Dragon Ladies with Global Hawks.
Both types of aircraft have been monitoring the Islamic State's movements in Iraq and Syria. In December 2016, after 40 years of service, the Air Force said it had retired an unspecified set of intelligence equipment—possibly the AN/ASQ-230 Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload—for the U-2, leaving the job to the RQ-4.
"The new system, already used on the RQ-4 Global Hawk, offers some automation and technological improvements over the older system," the Air Force reported, without giving any details about the gear. "Sharing the same system between the U-2 and RQ-4 also provides cost savings by using a single source for similar and complimentary capabilities."
The last U-2 to fly with the system was also situated at Al Dhafra, further highlighting how the manned spy planes and drones share many of the same missions. In 2016, the US Navy announced plans to make room on the base for its version of the Global Hawk, the MQ-4C Triton.
High above Iraq and Syria, the Global Hawks are undoubtedly taking images of potential Islamic State targets and snatching up radio chatter. However, unlike the Air Force's lower-flying Predator and Reaper drones, the RQ-4 does not have the ability to record video of particular targets.
That doesn't mean the Global Hawks are any less important to the overall mission. The pilotless planes are best suited for mapping out large areas and grabbing images of static targets, such as command centers and warehouses, especially in urban areas.
The "sensors [are] not ideal for real time surveillance of moving targets," a 2011 Air Force briefing explained. "Recommend 2 kilometer x 2 kilometer point targets to maximize … spot imagery capabilities."
Intelligence analysts can stitch together these large photographs to create full-size maps of entire regions, according to a National Guard manual. War Is Boring obtained both of these unclassified documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
Unfortunately, "cloud cover over the area may preclude electro-optical (EO) imagery but infrared (IR) maybe available," the 2011 Air Force briefing added. Under "ideal conditions," Global Hawk's synthetic aperture radar could grab detailed imagery despite some of these visual obstructions.
In October 2016, Iraqi and Kurdish troops began an offensive to retake Mosul, making this type of information especially valuable. Islamic State has been in control of the city and much of the surrounding area since June 2014.
Iraqi troops were in control of eastern Mosul as of this January 19.
Iraqi and Kurdish commanders and their foreign partners will no doubt need as much detail as possible about how the city's geography has changed since Islamic State occupied it—especially before Iraqi forces begin pressing toward the city's western half.
Global Hawks can fill these information gaps.
RQ-4s might also track any Islamic State attempts to fortify or otherwise improve defenses around particular sites in preparation for air or ground attacks. Intelligence troops could look for changes in terrain and piles of earth and stone indicating newly dug tunnels.
And if the Islamic State pops ups elsewhere, expect Global Hawks there, too.