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RQ-4 Global Hawk

RQ-4/MQ-4 Global Hawk
An RQ-4 Global Hawk flying in 2007
Role Surveillance UAV
National origin United States
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman
First flight 28 February 1998
Status In service
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Navy
Number built 42 RQ-4Bs as of FY2013[1]
Program cost US$10 billion (USAF cost through FY2014)[1]
Unit cost
US$131.4M (FY13)[1]
US$222.7M (with R&D)[1]
Variants Scaled Composites Model 396
Developed into Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance aircraft. It was initially designed by Ryan Aeronautical (now part of Northrop Grumman), and known as Tier II+ during development. In role and operational design, the Global Hawk is similar to the venerable Lockheed U-2. The RQ-4 provides a broad overview and systematic surveillance using high resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and long-range electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors with long loiter times over target areas. It can survey as much as 40,000 square miles (100,000 km2) of terrain a day.

The Global Hawk is operated by the United States Air Force and U.S. Navy. It is used as a high-altitude platform for surveillance and security. Missions for the Global Hawk cover the spectrum of intelligence collection capability to support forces in worldwide military operations. According to the United States Air Force, the superior surveillance capabilities of the aircraft allow more precise weapons targeting and better protection of friendly forces. Cost overruns have led to the original plan to acquire 63 aircraft being cut to 45, and to a 2013 proposal to mothball the 21 Block 30 signal-intelligence variants.[1] Each aircraft was to cost US$35 million in 2005,[2] but this had risen to $222.7M per aircraft (including development costs) by 2013.[1] The U.S. Navy has developed the Global Hawk into the MQ-4C Triton version for maritime surveillance.



The Global Hawk took its first flight on 28 February 1998.[3]

The first seven aircraft were built under the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) program, sponsored by DARPA,[4] in order to evaluate the design and demonstrate its capabilities. Demand for the RQ-4's abilities was high in the Middle East; thus, the prototype aircraft were actively operated by the U.S. Air Force in the War in Afghanistan. In an unusual move, the aircraft entered initial low-rate production while still in engineering and manufacturing development. Nine production Block 10 aircraft, sometimes referred to as RQ-4A, were produced; of these, two were sold to the US Navy and an additional two were deployed to Iraq to support operations there. The final Block 10 aircraft was delivered on 26 June 2006.[5]

In order to increase the aircraft's capabilities, the airframe was redesigned, with the nose section and wings being stretched. The altered aircraft, designated RQ-4B Block 20,[6] allow the aircraft to carry up to 3,000 pounds of internal payload. These changes were introduced with the first Block 20 aircraft, the 17th Global Hawk produced, which was rolled out in a ceremony on 25 August 2006.[7] First flight of the Block 20 from the USAF Plant 42 in Palmdale, California to Edwards Air Force Base took place on 1 March 2007. Developmental testing of Block 20 took place in 2008.[8]

United States Navy version

The United States Navy took delivery of two of the Block 10 aircraft to be used to evaluate maritime surveillance capabilities, designated N-1 (BuNo 166509) and N-2 (BuNo 166510).[9] The initial example was tested in a naval configuration at Edwards Air Force Base for several months, later ferrying to NAS Patuxent River on 28 March 2006 to begin the Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration (GHMD) program. Navy squadron VX-20 was tasked with operating the GHMD system.[10][11]

The GHMD aircraft flew in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise for the first time in July 2006. Although RIMPAC operations were in the vicinity of Hawaii, the aircraft was operated from Edwards, requiring flights of approximately 2,500 miles (4,000 km) each way to the operations area. Four flights were performed, resulting in over 24 hours of persistent maritime surveillance coordinated with USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Bonhomme Richard. As a part of the demonstration program, Global Hawk was tasked with maintenance of maritime situational awareness, contact tracking, and imagery support of various exercise operations. In operation, images from Global Hawks were transmitted to NAS Patuxent River for processing before being forwarded to the fleet operations off Hawaii.[12]

Northrop Grumman entered a version of the RQ-4B in the US Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV contract competition. On 22 April 2008 the announcement was made that the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N had won the bid, with the Navy awarding a contract worth US$1.16 billion.[13] In September 2010, the RQ-4N was officially designated the MQ-4C.[14]

On 11 June 2012 a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk crashed near Salisbury, Maryland, during a training flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River.[15][16][17]

Cost increases and procurement

Program development cost overruns had put the Global Hawk system at risk of cancellation. Per-unit costs in mid-2006 were 25% over baseline estimates, caused by both the need to correct design deficiencies as well as increase the system's capabilities. This caused some concerns about a possible congressional termination of the program if its national security benefits could not be justified.[18][19] However, in June 2006, the Global Hawk program was restructured. Completion of an operational assessment report by the Air Force was delayed from August 2005 to November 2007 due to manufacturing and development delays. The operational assessment report was released in March 2007 and production of the 54 air vehicles planned has been extended by two years to 2015.[20]

In February 2011, the Air Force reduced its planned purchase of RQ-4 Block 40 aircraft from 22 to 11 in order to cut costs.[21] In June 2011, the U.S. Defense Department's Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) found the RQ-4B "not operationally effective" for its mission due to reliability issues.[22]

In June 2011, the Global Hawk was certified by the Secretary of Defense as critical to national security following a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment; the Secretary stated: "The Global Hawk is essential to national security; there are no alternatives to Global Hawk which provide acceptable capability at less cost; Global Hawk costs $220M less per year than the U-2 to operate on a comparable mission; the U-2 cannot simultaneously carry the same sensors as the Global Hawk; and if funding must be reduced, Global Hawk has a higher priority over other programs."[23]

On 26 January 2012, the Pentagon announced plans to end Global Hawk Block 30 procurement as the type was found to be more expensive to operate and with less capable sensors than the existing U-2.[24][25] Plans to increase procurement of the Block 40 variant were also announced.[26][27] The Air Force's fiscal year 2013 budget request said it had resolved to divest itself of the Block 30 variant, however, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 mandated operations of the Block 30 fleet through the end of 2014.[28] The USAF plans to procure 45 RQ-4B Global Hawks as of 2013.[1]

From 2010 to 2013, costs of flying the Global Hawk fell by more than 50 percent. In 2010, the cost per flight hour was $40,600. Contractor logistic support, which accounts for much of the overall per flight hour cost, was $25,000 per flight hour. By mid-2013, cost per flight hour dropped to $18,900, with contractor logistic support dropping to $11,000 per flight hour. Cost was driven down in part by higher usage, which meant logistics and support costs were spread over a higher number of flight hours.[29]


The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) ordered a variant of the RQ-4B, to be equipped with a customized sensor suite, designated EuroHawk. The aircraft was based on the RQ-4B Block 20/30/40 and was to be equipped with an EADS-built SIGINT package; it was intended to fulfill Germany's requirement to replace their aging Dassault-Breguet Atlantique electronic surveillance aircraft of the German Navy (Deutsche Marine). The EADS sensor package is composed of six wing-mounted pods;[30] reportedly these sensor pods could potentially be used on other platforms, including manned aircraft.[31]

The EuroHawk was officially rolled out on 8 October 2009 and its first flight took place on 29 June 2010.[32] It underwent several months of flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base.[33] On 21 July 2011, the first EuroHawk arrived in Manching, Germany; after which it was scheduled to receive its SIGINT sensor package and undergo further testing and pilot training until the first quarter of 2012. The Luftwaffe planned to station the type with Reconnaissance Wing 51.[34] Development of the type proved to be problematic. In 2011 the German ministry of defence was aware that there were difficulties with the certification for use within the European airspace.[35] During the flight trials, problems with the EuroHawk's flight control system were found; the German certification process was also complicated by Northrop Grumman refusing to share technical data on the aircraft with which to perform evaluations.[31]

On 13 May 2013, German media reported that the EuroHawk would not be certifiable under ICAO rules without an anti-collision system; thus preventing any operations within European airspace or the airspace of any ICAO member.[36][37] The additional cost of certification was reported to be more than €600 million (US$780 million).[38] On 15 May 2013, the German government announced the immediate termination of the program, attributing the cancellation to the certification issue.[39] Reportedly, the additional cost to develop the EuroHawk to the standards needed for certification may not have guaranteed final approval for certification.[40] German defense minister Thomas de Maizière stated EuroHawk was "very important" for Germany in 2012,[35] then referred to the project as being "a horror without end" in his 2013 statement to the Bundestag. The total cost of the project before it was canceled was €562 million.[41][42] Northrop Grumman and EADS have described reports of flight control problems and high costs for certification as "inaccurate"; they have stated their intention to provide an affordable plan to complete the first EuroHawk's flight testing and produce the remaining four aircraft.[43][44]

On 8 August 2013, the EuroHawk set an endurance record by flying continuously in European airspace for 25.3 hours, reaching an altitude of 58,600 ft. It was the longest flight by an unrefueled UAS weighing more than 30,000 lb (14,000 kg) in European skies.[45]



The Global Hawk UAV system comprises the RQ-4 air vehicle, which is outfitted with various equipment such as sensor packages and communication systems; and a ground element consisting of a Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), and a Mission Control Element (MCE) with ground communications equipment.[46] Each RQ-4 air vehicle is powered by an Allison Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine with 7,050 lbf (31.4 kN) thrust, and carries a payload of 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). The fuselage comprises an aluminum, semi-monocoque construction; the wings are made of lightweight high-strength composite materials.[47]

System and ground facilities

The Integrated Sensor Suite (ISS) is provided by Raytheon and consists of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR), electro-optical (EO), and infrared (IR) sensors. Either the EO or the IR sensors can operate simultaneously with the SAR. Each of the sensors provides wide area search imagery and a high-resolution spot mode. The SAR has a ground moving target indicator (GMTI) mode, which can provide a text message providing the moving target's position and velocity. Both SAR and EO/IR imagery are transmitted from the aircraft to the MCE as individual frames, and reassembled during ground processing. An onboard inertial navigation system, supplemented by Global Positioning System updates, comprises the aircraft's onboard navigational suite. Global Hawk is intended to operate autonomously and "untethered" using a satellite data link (either Ku or UHF) for sending data from the aircraft to the MCE. The common data link can also be used for direct down link of imagery when the UAV is operating within line-of-sight of compatible ground stations.

The ground segment consists of a Mission Control Element (MCE) and Launch and Recovery Element (LRE), provided by Raytheon. The MCE is used for mission planning, command and control, and image processing and dissemination; an LRE for controlling launch and recovery; and associated ground support equipment. (The LRE provides precision differential global positioning system corrections for navigational accuracy during takeoff and landings, while precision coded GPS supplemented with an inertial navigation system is used during mission execution.) By having separable elements in the ground segment, the MCE and the LRE can operate in geographically separate locations, and the MCE can be deployed with the supported command's primary exploitation site. Both ground segments are contained in military shelters with external antennas for line-of-sight and satellite communications with the air vehicles.

Sensor packages

The Global Hawk carries the Hughes Integrated Surveillance & Reconnaissance (HISAR) sensor system.[48] HISAR is a lower-cost derivative of the ASARS-2 package that Hughes developed for the Lockheed U-2. HISAR is also fitted in the US Army's RC-7B Airborne Reconnaissance Low Multifunction (ARLM) manned surveillance aircraft, and is being sold on the international market. HISAR integrates a SAR-MTI system, along with an optical and an infrared imager. All three sensors are controlled and their outputs filtered by a common processor and transmitted in real time at up to 50 Mbit/s to a ground station.

The SAR-MTI system operates in the X-band and provides a number of operational modes; such as the wide-area MTI mode with a radius of 62 miles (100 kilometers), combined SAR-MTI strip mode provides 20 foot (6 meter) resolution over 23 miles (37 kilometers) wide sections, and a SAR spot mode providing 6 foot (1.8 meter) resolution over 3.8 square miles (10 square kilometers).

The visible and infrared imagers share the same gimballed sensor package, and use common optics, providing a telescopic close-up capability. It can be optionally fitted with an auxiliary SIGINT package. To improve survivability, the Global Hawk is fitted with a Raytheon developed AN/ALR-89 self-protection suite consisting of the AN/AVR-3 Laser Warning System, AN/APR-49 Radar Warning Receiver and a jamming system. An ALE-50 towed decoy also aids in the Global Hawk's deception of enemy air defenses.[49][50]

In July 2006, the US Air Force began testing the Global Hawk Block 30 upgrades in the Benefield Anechoic Facility at Edwards AFB; such as the Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload, an extremely sensitive SIGINT processor.[49] In 2006, a specialist radar system, the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program, or MP-RTIP, began testing on the Scaled Composites Proteus; one modified Global Hawk shall carry the radar following validation. In 2010, Northrop spoke on the sensor capabilities of the new Block 40 aircraft, including MP-RTIP radar, emphasising surveillance over reconnaissance.[51]

Operational history

U.S. Air Force

Air Force Global Hawk flight test evaluations are performed by the 452nd Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB. Operational USAF aircraft are flown by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, 12th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base.

Global Hawk ATCD prototypes have been used in the War in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War. Since April 2010, they fly the Northern Route, from Beale AFB over Canada to South-East Asia and back, reducing flight time and improving maintenance. While their data-collection capabilities have been praised, the program lost three prototype aircraft to accidents,[52][53][54] more than one quarter of the aircraft used in the wars. The crashes were reported to be due to "technical failures or poor maintenance", with a failure rate per hour flown over 100 times higher than the F-16 fighters flown in the same wars. The manufacturer stated that it was unfair to compare the failure rates of a mature design to that of a prototype aircraft. In June 2012, a media report described the Global Hawk, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reapers "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet."[55]

On 11 February 2010, the Global Hawks deployed in the Central Command AOR accrued 30,000 combat hours and 1,500 plus sorties.[56] Initial operational capability was declared for the RQ-4 Block 30 in August 2011.[6] The Air Force does not plan to keep the RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk in service past 2014, in favor of the U-2 and other platforms that can more cheaply take over the mission.[57] Congress wants the Air Force to keep flying the Block 30 Global Hawk through December 2016.[58] The Air Force had 18 Block 30 Global Hawks by the time of the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which directed them to procure 3 more aircraft as part of Lot 11. The Air Force feels 18 Block 30 aircraft are sufficient to meet high altitude ISR needs, and the additional Block 30s will be an "excess to need" and likely be designated as backup or attrition reserve models. Despite the potential retirement of the Block 30 fleet due to low reliability, low mission readiness, and high costs, the Air Force released a pre-solicitation notice on 12 September 2013 for Lot 12 aircraft.[59]

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the aircraft flew 300 hours over the affected areas in Japan.[60] There were also plans to survey the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.[61]

By late November 2012, Northrop Grumman had delivered 37 Global Hawks to the U.S. Air Force.[62]

The USAF has said that the U-2 pilot and altitude advantages allow it to better function in the stormy weather and airspace restrictions of the East Asia region and its altitude and sensor advantages allow it to see further into hostile territory.[63] On 24 August 2013, the Japanese Ministry of Defense said they plan to operate one Global Hawk by 2015 jointly with the U.S. It will likely be deployed from Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, although other locations are being perused.[64] In October 2013, the U.S. secured basing rights to deploy long-range Global Hawk surveillance drones from Japan, marking the first time the Pentagon has been able to secure basing rights for the unmanned aircraft in Northeast Asia. The Air Force will begin flying “two or three” Global Hawks from an undetermined base in Japan by spring 2014. Global Hawks are stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, but flights often are curtailed from bad weather. Basing the aircraft in Japan as opposed to Guam would enhance spying capabilities against North Korea because deploying from Guam means the surveillance area is near the edge of its range.[65]

From its first flight in 1998 to 9 September 2013, Global Hawk aircraft flew 100,000 hours. 88 percent of flights were conducted by U.S. Air Force Global Hawks, while the remaining hours were flown by NASA Global Hawks, the EuroHawk, the Navy BAMS demonstrator, and the MQ-4C Triton. Approximately 75 percent of flights were in combat zones supporting six combatant commands. Global Hawks flew in operations over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, supported disaster response efforts in Haiti and Japan, and even observed wildfires in southern California in 2007.[66][3]


On 24 April 2001, a Global Hawk flew non-stop from Edwards in the US to RAAF Base Edinburgh in Australia, making history by being the first pilotless aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean. The flight took 22 hours, and set a world record for absolute distance flown by a UAV, 13,219.86 kilometers (8,214.44 mi).[67][68]

On 22 March 2008, a Global Hawk set the endurance record for full-scale, operational unmanned aircraft UAVs by flying for 33.1 hours at altitudes up to 60,000 feet over Edwards Air Force Base.[69]


In December 2007, two Global Hawks were transferred from the U.S. Air Force to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. Initial research activities beginning in the second quarter of 2009 supported NASA's high-altitude, long-duration Earth science missions.[70][71] The two Global Hawks were the first and sixth aircraft built under the original DARPA Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program, and were made available to NASA when the Air Force had no further need for them.[4] Northrop Grumman is an operational partner with NASA and will use the aircraft to demonstrate new technologies and to develop new markets for the aircraft, including possible civilian uses.[71]

According to an article in the March 2010 issue of Scientific American (p. 25-27), the Global Hawk aircraft belonging to NASA were in use for testing purposes as of October 2009, with science missions expected to start in March 2010. Initial science applications included measurements of the ozone layer and cross-Pacific transport of air pollutants and aerosols. The author of the Scientific American piece speculates that the aircraft could be used for Antarctic exploration while based in and operated from Chile.

In August and September 2010 one of the two Global Hawks was loaned for NASA's GRIP Mission (Genesis and Rapid Intensification Program),[72] with its long-term on station capabilities and long range it was the best aircraft for the mission to monitor the development of Atlantic basin Hurricanes. It was modified to equip weather sensors including Ku-Band Radar, Lightning sensors and Dropsondes.[73] It successfully flew into Hurricane Earl off the United States East Coast on 2 September 2010.[74]


In 2009, NATO announced that it expects to have a fleet of up to eight Global Hawks by 2012. The aircraft are to be equipped with MP-RTIP radar systems. NATO has budgeted US$1.4 billion (€1 billion) for the project, and a letter of intent has been signed.[75] NATO signed a contract for five Block 40 Global Hawks in May 2012.[76]

Potential operators

Australia considered the purchase of a number of Global Hawks for maritime and land surveillance. The Global Hawk was to be assessed against the MQ-9 Mariner in trials in 2007.[77] The Global Hawk aircraft would have operated in conjunction with manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft by 10 and 11 Squadrons of the RAAF, as a replacement of aging AP-3C Orion aircraft. In the end, the Australian government decided not to proceed and canceled the order.[78] In 2012, a procurement effort for seven UAVs by 2019 was initiated.[79] In May 2013 the Australian government confirmed its interest in acquiring the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance variant.[80]

Canada has also been a potential customer, looking at the Global Hawk for maritime and land surveillance as either a replacement for its fleet of CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft or to supplement manned patrols of remote Arctic and maritime environments, before withdrawing from the joint effort in August 2011.[81] Spain has a similar requirement, and has existing contacts with Northrop Grumman.[82]

Japan had been reported as being interested in the purchase of three aircraft.[83][84] On 24 August 2013, Japan reported that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force plans to operate one Global Hawk jointly with the U.S. by 2015.[64]

In 2011, South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) expressed interest in acquiring at least four RQ-4B and support equipment to increase intelligence capabilities following the exchange of the Wartime Operational Control from the U.S. to the Republic of Korea. Government officials debated on the topic of the Global Hawks and its own domestic UAV programs.[85] In September 2011, the US and South Korea discussed aircraft deployments near its border with North Korea to view North Korea and the North Korea–China border.[86] In January 2012, DAPA announced that it would not proceed with a purchase due to a price rise from US$442M to US$899M, and that other platforms such as the Global Observer or the Phantom Eye were being investigated.[87] However, in December 2012, South Korea notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale of 4 RQ-4 Block 30 (I) Global Hawk UAVs with the Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite (EISS) at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion.[88] On 5 July 2013, the Korean National Assembly advised the government to re-evaluate plans to buy the Global Hawk, again citing high costs.[89] The buying process for the four South Korean RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawks may start in early 2014, with deployment by 2017.[90]

The New Zealand Defence Force is keeping a "watching brief" over Global Hawk, which has the range to conduct surveillance in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, and in the Pacific Islands. The acquisition process has not moved beyond an expression of interest. Also being looked at are the IAI Heron and the "Kahu", an indigenously developed hand-thrown drone.[91]

The Indian Navy has expressed interest in acquiring six to eight MQ-4C Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft Systems.[92][93]


Initial production version for the USAF, 16 built.
Improved version with increased payload, wingspan increased to 130.9 ft (39.8 m) and length increased to 47.7 ft (14.5 m). Due to the increased size and payload the range is reduced to 8,700 nmi.[94]
RQ-4E Euro Hawk
Version for Germany based on RQ-4B and equipped with an EADS reconnaissance payload for SIGINT. Germany canceled its order in May 2013; it received one of five Euro Hawks originally ordered.[39]
MQ-4C Triton
For USN Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) role; previously known as the RQ-4N; 4 ordered, 68 total planned.[95]
Equipped with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system.[96]

Autonomous tanker variant

KQ-X is a proposed autonomous tanker variant. It is currently being tested.[97][98]

Model 396

Scaled Composites and Northrop Grumman also offered an armed, 50% smaller version of the RQ-4A, known as the Scaled Composites Model 396, as part of the USAF Hunter-Killer program. The aircraft was rejected in favor of the MQ-9 Reaper.


 United States

Specifications (RQ-4B)

Data from USAF[6]

General characteristics
  • Crew: 0 onboard (3 remote: LRE pilot; MCE pilot and sensor operator)
  • Length: 47.6 ft (14.5 m)
  • Wingspan: 130.9 ft (39.9 m)
  • Height: 15.3 ft (4.7 m)
  • Empty weight: 14,950 lb (6,781 kg)
  • Gross weight: 32,250 lb (14,628 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce F137-RR-100 turbofan engine, 7,600 lbf (34 kN) thrust


  • Cruise speed: 357 mph (310 kn; 575 km/h)
  • Range: 8,700 mi (7,560 nmi; 14,001 km)
  • Endurance: 28 hours
  • Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,288 m)

See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists


This article contains material that originally came from the web article by Greg Goebel, which exists in the Public Domain.

External links

External images
Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk Block 10 Cutaway
Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk Block 10 Cutaway from
  • RQ-4 Global Hawk U.S. Air Force fact sheet
  • Federation of American Scientists
  • Defense Update
  • Raytheon product page on the Global Hawk Integrated Sensor Suite
  • Bundeswehr Euro Hawk page
  • Results of Global Hawk accident investigation board
  • RQ-4 Global Hawk profile on Air Attack
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