Friday, March 18, 2011

Guam Global Hawks Surveying Earthquake Damage

By Amy Butler(AW&ST)

Two of the Air Force’s new Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft are conducting imagery intelligence missions over Japan following the massive earthquake that struck off the island chain’s northeast coast March 11.
This marks Global Hawk’s fourth region of operations abroad, including the Pacific, Central Command (supporting Iraq and Afghanistan), European Command and Southern Command (over Mexico and South America). Talks are now underway to potentially fly new Block 30 Global Hawks from NAS Sigonella in Italy to monitor activities in Libya, Bahrain and other areas of unrest in Africa and the Middle East, according to program officials.
The two UAVs are flying out of Andersen AFB in Guam and providing imagery along with U-2 aircraft out of Osan Air Base in South Korea. The second of the aircraft arrived there in early January, says Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
Sensor suite
The Global Hawks over Japan are the Block 30I configuration, carrying the Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite (EISS) capable of collecting images of wide swaths of land. The imagery will be digitally relayed for processing. The U-2 is employing the mainstay Optical Bar Camera, which can also provide high-resolution, wide-area views of the terrain. This camera, however, employs wet film, which must be sent back to Beale AFB, Calif., for development and processing prior to analysis.
While the aircraft are both surveying areas wrecked by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, they can also be helpful with the growing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s northeast coast.
Global Hawk’s EISS can provide infrared imagery of the plant, which is helping workers find the hottest areas of the nuclear reactors — some of which are thought to either be melting down or on the cusp of such a disaster.
Efforts now are focused on cooling the reactors’ fuel rods, though the plant has had interruptions in power supply and suffered damage from multiple hydrogen explosions. One issue is knowing where water is needed most to cool the most vulnerable fuel rods. Though Global Hawk is capable of standing off a significant distance from any radiation that may be contaminating the atmosphere, one program expert notes that the Air Force does have decontamination procedures that can be put in place once the aircraft lands, if needed.
Six versions
Meanwhile, six versions of the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk are operating out of Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates; the high-altitude unmanned air system arrived there nearly a decade ago to support growing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. They include three Air Force Block 10 aircraft, a single Navy Block 10 aircraft outfitted with maritime surveillance software and two Block 20 UAVs outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node relay system.
As operations ramp up abroad, Air Force officials are putting the finishing touches on a report on the initial operational test and evaluation phase for the Block 20/30 aircraft. The program has suffered delays and come under fire during the past year for cost growth.
However, Air Force acquisition chief David Van Buren says the problems are turning around. “I was unhappy. I was unhappy with out own government program office,” he said this month. “I’m happy to say we have reversed the course with Northrop and its suppliers” on cost. He says that together with Northrop Grumman he has identified about $39 million in savings for the program.
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

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