The RQ-4 Global Hawk is now stalking Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria.
The drone that the United States Air Force sees as the replacement for the venerable U-2 spy plane is now flying surveillance missions over Nigeria as part of the search for 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group. A Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk flew a mission over Nigeria on Tuesday, according to an NBC News report.
The Global Hawk, which first flew in 1998, can stay airborne for up to 28 hours and has a range of 8,700 miles. It has a wingspan close to that of a Boeing 747, weighs more than 32,000 pounds, and carries the Hughes Integrated Surveillance and Reconnaissance (HISAR) sensor system, a down-market version of the infrared, optical, and synthetic aperture radar gear Hughes developed for the U-2.
At least some of the current RQ-4 aircraft carry a signals intelligence sensor as well, which can be used to intercept radio transmissions from the ground. The latest generation of RQ-4s (Block 40) will carry an improved radar system called the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP), which can both provide synthetic aperture radar imaging of the ground below and track multiple moving targets.
An RQ-4 Global Hawk takes off from its base in California.
It’s not known where the Global Hawk aircraft patrolling over Nigeria is operating from; the Air Force typically flies the Global Hawk remotely from bases in California and North Dakota—meaning that it probably has to fly at least 6,500 miles just to get on station in Nigeria. To provide a bit more local capability, the Air Force has also deployed an MC-12W Liberty manned reconnaissance aircraft, a variant of the Beechcraft King Air 350 rushed out in 2009 to provide more persistent intelligence and surveillance capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The MC-12W’s sensor suite is intended for much more up-close reconnaissance. Manned by two pilots and two sensor operators, it is equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as signals collection gear, and can take on additional sensors depending on the mission. The airplane can also carry a laser designator, in the event that it finds something that needs to be hit with smart bombs.
Just how effective either of these aircraft will be in helping in the search is uncertain. Given the heavily forested terrain of the country, getting a visual lock on the girls and their captors will be difficult. Synthetic aperture radar could be used to find vehicles and buildings hidden by vegetation or even find structures buried underground, and infrared systems could locate individuals under tree cover. But it will take other intelligence information to confirm that the aircraft are even looking in the right place.