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Air Warfare

Japan's first Global Hawk makes maiden flight

22nd April 2021 - 19:00 GMT | by Noemi Distefano

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RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft. (Photo: US Army)

The delivery of the RQ-4B Global Hawk to Japan will equip the country with intelligence gathering and threat monitoring capabilities.

The first of three Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawks for Japan completed its maiden flight on 15 April 2021 from Palmdale, California. 

The HALE UAV can fly at altitudes of up to 60,000ft for more than 30 hours and it is designed to carry payloads for ISTAR operations.

 In an official statement, Northrop Grumman’s Vice President and General Manager Jane Bishop said: ‘The unarmed RQ-4B Global Hawk will provide Japan with on-demand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information supporting the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s missions of protecting borders, monitoring threats and providing humanitarian assistance in times of need.’ 

 In 2015, the US Government approved the sale of Global Hawk Block 30 aircraft to Japan as a part of an FMS deal. 

 The annual Defence White Paper issued by the Japanese MoD in July 2020 highlighted how the country planned its response to regional threats posed by North Korean and Chinese military operations in the Asia Pacific. 

Shephard reported in August 2020, a month after the white paper came out, that Tokyo was considering cancelling the purchase of Global Hawk following the US Air Force’s 2021 budget proposal, which raised the possible retirement of RQ-4 Blocks 20 and 30. 

Japan and South Korea would have been left as the only two countries using the RQ-4B UAV (although NATO operates five Global Hawk aircraft in the RQ-4D configuration).

This raised concerns for the Japanese MoD, which feared rising maintenance costs and delays in obtaining spare parts for Global Hawk via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. 

 The recent Global Hawk first flight suggests that the UAV procurement programme is on track as Japan has no other alternatives, apart from using the ISR capabilities of F-35s for reconnaissance missions. 

This article was amended on 23 April to reflect the fact that the USAF FY2021 budget submission proposed but did not confirm retirement of RQ-4 Blocks 20 and 30; and that NATO operates the RQ-4D variant.

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