Navy’s Global Hawks Come Home After Unexpected 13-Year Deployment

On June 17, the last RQ-4A Global Hawk drone specially configured for the U.S. Navy as part of the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator program, or BAMS-D, landed in Patuxent River, Maryland to be greeted by the program’s personnel responsible for its conception. Returning from a whopping 13-year-long deployment that was initially supposed to be a six-month concept demonstration, the remaining BAMS-D aircraft are on their way to tying off a storied career.

The BAMS-D program began in 2003 after the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a contract to develop concepts of operation for a high-altitude, long-endurance maritime-focused unmanned system, which ended up laying the groundwork for the MQ-4C Triton. Originally called the Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration program, the Navy and Northrop Grumman then began working together to modify the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk’s integrated sensor suite to include overwater radar and electronic support measures to better fit a maritime environment. Four of the early Block 10 RQ-4As were eventually modified for the program, which became known as BAMS-D.

The Navy’s BAMS-D team at Patuxent River. Northrop Grumman

The overall BAMS-D system is comprised of two Block 10 RQ-4A unmanned air vehicles, one Mission Control Element, two Launch and Recovery Elements, and one Tactical Auxiliary Ground Station as described by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). The aircraft is propelled by one Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine and clocks in at about 44 feet in length with a wingspan of 116 feet. They’re also around 15 feet tall with a max design gross take-off weight of 26,750 pounds, which allows them to reach their flight ceiling of about 60,000 feet. The system’s ground station is made up of a four-member crew, two of which remotely pilot the aircraft while the other two operate the sensors. The Global Hawk, and its BAMS-D offshoot, use a semi-autonomous control concept in which no actual pilot flies the aircraft. Instead, it and its systems are directed via a desktop ‘point and click’ type interface.

According to NAVAIR, BAMS-D completed its first split-site deployment — where it operates overseas but is controlled during its mission in a different locale like the U.S. — in 2008 in support of the Trident Warrior and Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises held that year. Also during its early days in the field, the system became a significant enabler for humanitarian efforts by providing reconnaissance of wildfires in mountainous regions of California as well as assessing the damage left by Hurricane Ike.

Northrup Grumman contractors perform pre-flight checks on the last U.S. Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk, attached to the BAMS-D mission. U.S. Navy

“Northrop Grumman and the Navy deployed the system from Naval Air Station Patuxent River to Naval Air Station Point Mugu to participate in RIMPAC and Trident Warrior in the summer of 2008 where we flew 15 successful flights,” said Avis Anderson, sustainment director for Triton programs at Northrop Grumman when asked if we had any fond memories of BAMS-D. “A short period afterward, we received the order to deploy to Central Command in early 2009. The capability spoke for itself.”

In 2009, the Navy deployed the BAMS-D system to Al Dhafra Air Force Base in the United Arab Emirates where it was sent off to fly its supposedly brief demonstration for the Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean and is headquartered in Bahrain. However, as foreign tensions continued to rise in the Middle East, BAMS-D had its mission extended with each passing year. According to NAVAIR, BAMS-D went on to provide more than 50 percent of maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for its operational area and racked up over 42,500 flight hours in 2,069 overseas missions.

“By 2013, BAMS-D had ramped up its capabilities to fifteen 24-hour missions every month, supplementing its first deployed aircraft with a second aircraft,” reads the NAVAIR announcement. “Through the next nine years, BAMS-D provided uninterrupted operations and collected almost 1.4 million ISR scenes, highlighted over 11,500 targets of interest, and provided the fleet with over 15,000 tactical reports, becoming an indispensable asset for the warfighter.”

U.S. Navy

Among its missions is one that NAVAIR specifically highlighted in its announcement and was likely one of the last to be carried out by BAMS-D in-theater. In August 2021, NAVAIR notes that the system played a huge role in the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and provided persistent ISR coverage for non-combatant evacuation operations.

The BAMS-D system’s deployment wasn’t entirely positive, though, because in 2019 one of its RQ-4As had been shot down by Iranian forces when operating over the southern approach to the Strait of Hormuz, near the Iranian port city of Kouhmobarak. The War Zone was the first to report that the aircraft involved was a BAMS-D, which few even knew existed at the time. As reasoning for the attack, Iranian forces claimed that the flight had violated their airspace, which was denied by the United States and nearly prompted a significant regional crisis. The incident also went on to highlight the Global Hawk’s vulnerabilities in relatively modest hostile air defense, which put an emphasis on the need for more survivable platforms that can still provide the same level of capability in high-threat environments. We must emphasize that the Global Hawk was never designed for missions into contested territory, so it isn’t as if this was a new vulnerability, just one that became a bit glaring as a result of the incident.

Ironically, just days after BAMS-D returned home this month, Iran made the salvaged and reconstructed parts of the shot-down RQ-4A a fixture of a display in a local museum. It’s not the first time they have touted wreckage of the RQ-4 before, though.

Even though the BAMS-D aircraft certainly provided valuable service for the United States throughout their deployment, the RQ-4As are aging. The USAF’s Block 10 Global Hawks were retired by the service long ago. Because of this, the program was officially divested by the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2022, and the Pentagon is now working toward addressing what might fill its shoes in the Middle East.

In a breakdown of the fiscal year 2022 budget published by The War Zone that you can read here, it was noted that the Navy was looking to retire its remaining RQ-4A drones which signaled an internal priority shift away from the BAMS-D system and instead toward further developing the MQ-4C Triton. In the same budget documentation, it was revealed that the purchasing of additional MQ-4C Tritons would be paused in order to allow the Integrated Functional Capability-4 design to mature. In 2021, the MQ-4C flew for the first time with its upgraded intelligence configuration, which brought it one step closer to replacing the dated BAMS-D. Regardless, MQ-4Cs are operational today in the Pacific in their maritime surveillance role and their capabilities are only set to grow.

“The MQ-4C program has been informed in almost every way by lessons we learned from the BAMS-D program,” Anderson said. “Perhaps the most important lessons we learned tie back to the 96% mission readiness rate. These systems are incredibly complex, especially when you consider the multi-intelligence configuration of Triton that we will introduce to the fleet in 2023. The BAMS-D program helped us understand the logistics and maintenance challenges to keep these complex aircraft ready to support warfighter needs, and everything we learned from BAMS-D will inform current and future Triton deployments.”

The Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight May 22, 2013. U.S. Navy

While BAMS-D’s fate is looks sealed, other older RQ-4 Global Hawks are finding life in new roles. In 2021, Northrop Grumman revealed that it would be repurposing four Block 20 RQ-4 Global Hawks as surveillance platforms to monitor hypersonic missile tests. On top of that, the Air Force’s 319th Reconnaissance Wing today announced that it will divest a total of 20 Block 30 RQ-4s and transfer some of them to the Test Resource Management Center’s High Speed System Test department outfitted with entirely new sensor technology. Of course, a handful of other Block 20 Global Hawks have served on as flying communications gateways in the form of the EQ-4B BACN, but even those are now slated for retirement. Finally, NASA has also made great use of early-production second-hand USAF Global Hawks.

Regardless, BAMS-D really has been a remarkable program. A developmental initiative that turned into a semi-operational one that morphed into a continuous operational deployment for nearly a decade and a half. This was all with largely experimental systems and old airframes that were themselves somewhat experimental when they were built. All while influencing the next generation and reducing risk for those follow-on systems.

I think it’s safe to say the taxpayer got their money’s worth on this program.

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