US to use giant drone to test hypersonic missiles and long-range weapons

It will be reconfigured to meet testing needs.
Ameya Paleja
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The RQ-4 Global Hawk

Northrop Grumman 

The giant drone, RQ-4 RangeHawk, will soon be used to support the development of hypersonic missiles in the U.S., its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, said in a press release.

Hypersonic missiles are the newest frontier in the weapons race, with countries like Russia and North Korea laying claims to have successfully demonstrated this technology. The U.S. hypersonic missile program has faced a few hiccups with repetitive test failures. Last month, the U.S. Air Force confirmed that its Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) had been successfully tested, almost after a year after similar claims from Russia.

Now, in a bid to further its hypersonic missile program, the Department of Defense Test Resource Management Center (TRMC) has sought access to Northrop Grumman's giant drone, RQ-4 RangeHawk.

What is the RQ-4 RangeHawk?

The RQ-4 is popularly known by the moniker GlobalHawk as used by the U.S. Air Force as a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) platform. It is a remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft that first took flight in 1998 and has been adapted for use by the U.S. Navy as well.

The initial design was modified to build the RQ-4B drone with a wingspan of 130.9 feet (39.9 m) and a length of 47.7 feet (14.5 m). In comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet (20 m), almost half the size.

The RQ-4 is powered by a single Rolls-Royce F-137 turbofan engine that generates 7,600 lbf (34 kN) of thrust and delivers a range of 14,200 miles (22,800 km) and endurance of 34 hours.

Propelling hypersonic missile development

After years of service, the U.S. Air Force has decided to retire its GlobalHawks by 2027, The Drive reported last year. Northrop Grumman, in its press release, stated that Block 20 and 30 RQ-4B Global Hawk aircraft were now being transferred to SkyRange, TRMC's unmanned, HALE mobile test system to be reconfigured into RangeHawks.

During the reconfiguration, the aircraft will be equipped with advanced payloads to support the testing of hypersonic vehicles and other long-range weapons. The company claims that the "over-the-horizon altitude, endurance and flexibility" offered by the RangeHawks will be critical in collecting telemetry and other data for the hypersonic vehicles.

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Previous testing of these vehicles has involved ship-based sensors. The sensors deployed on RangeHawks will provide an alternative data-collection support system, which has been tested in the Pacific and elsewhere earlier, the press release said.

“Northrop Grumman’s RangeHawk is ideally suited to collect data by providing persistent time-on-station positioned closer to the flight path and agility to adapt to the dynamics of a testing environment – a force multiplier as we evolve critical national security capabilities," said George Rumford, acting director, and principal deputy at the TRMC. "SkyRange will enable the Department of Defense to accelerate our pace of testing hypersonic systems.”

Northrop Grumman is also working with NASA at Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base to manage operations of its RQ-4A fleet while also developing new payloads for its RQ-4Bs, the press release added.

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