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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Looking Over Borders, Into Ukraine

Two markedly different models of unmanned aircraft with San Diego County roots have been gathering intelligence and helping the United States assess the status of the war in Ukraine. They are the Global Hawk from Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) and the MQ-9 Reaper from privately held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

Published reports offer a glimpse of real-world use cases for these remotely piloted aircraft.


Global Hawk, which was developed in San Diego in the late 1990s, carries sophisticated cameras to gather images of what’s going on below. Other electronics collect signals intelligence. It can fly at 60,000 feet and stay in the air for upward of 30 hours.


The Reaper can collect imagery, fly high (50,000 feet) and stay in the air for more than 27 hours. Unlike Global Hawk, Reaper can carry weapons, though this does not seem to be the case in Eastern Europe.


There is a size difference: Global Hawk weighs 16 tons at takeoff while Reaper weighs 5 tons.

A Defense News editorial from early March said Global Hawks and Reapers have been flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions along the Ukrainian border, along with E-8 JSTARS aircraft.

A Case For More Aircraft?

Author Douglas Birkey makes the case that an overextended U.S. Air Force should not retire such aircraft: “The service is now cannibalizing itself by retiring airframes still in demand and buying too few new types to maintain baseline capacity. … The Air Force is retiring JSTARS without a tangible replacement, the Global Hawk was gutted last year, and the service and has been posturing to retire MQ-9s even though the type remains in high demand. Absent necessary resources, Air Force leaders are cutting into bone without the ability to bring on new aircraft in the volume and timeframe global events demand.”

The author — who is executive director at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies — argues that the military, particularly the Air Force, needs more funding. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally altered what our national security posture and what our defense posture needs to be,” he wrote. “It made it more complicated and it made it more expensive.”

There have also been accounts of Global Hawks making repeated flights over Ukraine and the Black Sea prior to Ukraine closing its airspace in February. According to an account in Stars and Stripes, flight paths for these U.S. Air Force missions were not classified and were visible on commercial flight-tracking websites such as Flightradar24. The last flight tracked was on Feb. 24.

Overseas Sales?

Separately, there have been published reports that Poway-based GA-ASI has been speaking to Ukraine and one of its Eastern European neighbors about aircraft sales. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States met with representatives of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in early April, according to a Washington Post account.


Reuters reported in mid-March that the Polish government is interested in buying several MQ-9 Reaper aircraft in the short run, and perhaps more in the long run, though models were not specified.

GA-ASI builds its aircraft in Poway. Northrop Grumman runs its Global Hawk program from offices in Rancho Bernardo, but it builds the aircraft in Palmdale. Global Hawk was originally a product of Teledyne Ryan, which Northrop Grumman acquired.

Both GA-ASI and Northrop Grumman have pursued international sales. Northrop Grumman has sold three Global Hawks to NATO and is selling aircraft to Australia. GA-ASI has sold to a variety of customers, most recently the Japanese coast guard.

Even if they are not building new aircraft, both companies receive periodic contracts to sustain existing aircraft.

Huntington-Ingalls to Support LCS

The U.S. Navy awarded Huntington-Ingalls Industries a $20.2 million contract modification, exercising options for planning yard services, or continued lifecycle support, for the Littoral Combat Ships in service. Some 3% of the work, worth approximately $600,000, will be performed in San Diego and is expected to be completed by April 2023. The Naval Sea Systems Command of Washington, D.C. awarded the contract, announced on April 25.

Herman Construction in Line for Army Work

Herman Construction Group Inc. of Escondido was among approximately two dozen contractors selected to compete for orders in a $450 million contract for design-build capabilities in support of the U.S. Army’s Facility Repair and Renewal program. Bids were solicited via the internet with 80 received. Work locations and funding will be determined with each order, with an estimated completion date of April 12, 2027. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Alabama awarded the contract, announced on April 12.


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