I’m sure that the U-2 community is carefully evaluating the shooting down of a Global Hawk UAV over the Straits of Hormuz by Iran on 20th June. Are there lessons to be learned? Is the U-2 equally vulnerable?
A radar tracking map released by the Iranians shows the Global Hawk flying at 57,000 feet when it was engaged – they say – by one of their new, indigenous Khordad SAM systems. According to US Central Command, the UAV was 21 miles off the Iranian coast when hit. Iran claims that it was inside its airspace eg 12miles or less from the coast. Whoever you believe, there were small margins for error: the Strait is only 35 miles wide at this point.
The UAV was an early-production RQ-4A Block 10 with a sensor suite that had been modified to do maritime surveillance for the US Navy (above). Obviously, that is currently a vital task, with Iran threatening more attacks against international shipping in those congested waters. The UAV was operating out of Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE, where it is based alongside USAF RQ-4B Block 30s (and U-2s). It was equipped with an Electronic Support Measures (ESM) sensor, but it did not have an Electronic Warfare System (EWS).
That is a crucial difference, according to my U-2 contacts. They note that the Dragon Lady has a very capable wideband EWS – the ALQ-221 made by BAE Systems. It detects, classifies and counters threats, using 13 receivers and transmitters. And its threat data file is uploaded to the U-2’s avionics processor, so that there is a useful warning display in the cockpit, enabling the pilot to take evasive action.
The fact that the Dragon Lady carries this state-of-the-art EWS, plus the added degree of protection afforded by flying at over 70,000 feet, means that the U-2 can “fly at the very edge of denied airspace”, according to one USAF briefing (see the graphic below).
There are no defensive systems on Global Hawk, to my knowledge – not even a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). (The ESM system on the Block 10 jet was presumably dedicated to detecting emissions from ships). Some of the USAF’s Block 30 Global Hawks do have a SIGINT collection system, but its ‘take’ must be relayed by satellite to a ground station that is usually thousands of miles away. Analysts there might notice that an unfriendly surveillance radar is monitoring the UAV, and relay that to the Global Hawk ‘pilot’ – who sits in a separate ground control station that may be hundreds or more miles away. He could then take evasive action by altering the aircraft’s route on his keyboard, and relaying that to the Global Hawk, again by satellite. I doubt if that works, when the UAV is facing an immediate threat, from a SAM system’s target acquisition radar and missiles. (Incidentally, the U-2 carries the same Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP), provided by Northrop Grumman).
Iran’s line-up of air defense systems is varied, with at least ten listed in open sources. Some of these are of Russian-origin, such as the formidable S-300PMU. One is Chinese-origin, perhaps copied. Others are hybrid adaptations by Iranian engineers or by willing suppliers of overhaul and modification services, such as Belarus. Others are claimed by Iran to be purely indigenous, such as the aforementioned Khordad (see below).
It must be a complex task to locate, identify, collect, classify and counter such a line-up. Especially since many of the Iranian systems are mobile, and can ‘shoot and scoot’. The USAF has a formal system nicknamed Pacer Ware for handling the reprograming of its electronic warfare systems when made necessary by evolving threats. The aim is to provide urgent changes to fielded systems within 72 hours. But can it cope with a set-up like that in Iran?
This may be why the 9th Reconnaissance Wing is trying to independently exploit the U-2’s EWS to the maximum extent possible. The wing has expanded role of the mission planners, who are now called Reconnaissance System Operators (RSOs). In addition to more sophisticated collection sensor planning, these RSOs are charged with enhanced consideration of defensive tactics. They are working with data that has been recorded by the U-2’s EWS but not displayed to the pilot inflight because the threat threshold was not reached. They could potentially monitor and react to EWS data in real-time – a datalink for the ALQ-221 has been tested.
Some people say that what happened on 20th June proves the value of UAVs versus manned aircraft for ISR. After all, President Trump did state that he called off a retaliatory airstrike partly because no American pilot died that day. But at some $150 million each, sophisticated sensors onboard, and with the dimensions of a Boeing 737, the Global Hawk is not in the same category as a Reaper. This debate will continue.
As you read this, a U-2 is probably airborne and operating close to threat systems located in unfriendly and unpredictable countries. If not Iran, then North Korea or elsewhere.
That’s why I am keeping a U-2 mug on my shelf, together with its inscription:
“Right now, somewhere above 60,000 feet, courageous Americans are putting their lives on the line to ensure peace for everyone who seeks freedom. We salute them, and we place their mug on this shelf while we wait for their safe return. Until then, we wish them Godspeed.”