Are US RQ-4B drones helping Ukraine destroy Russia’s S-400s

Following the deployment of a Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone by the U.S. Air Force for flights over the Black Sea near Russian territory, numerous reports from Russian sources have suggested that the aircraft was utilized to survey the nation’s air defenses, potentially aiding future air defense suppression efforts in the region. 

US-supplied to Ukraine ATACMS M39 Block I destroyed a Russian S-400
Photo credit: Telegram

Military analyst Dmitry Drozdenko, speaking to the state media outlet Sputnik, noted that the Global Hawk’s mission seemed to involve a “provocative attempt to uncover Russian air defense systems in this area,” ostensibly to assist the Ukrainian Army in targeting them later. 

In particular, Drozdenko emphasized that the American drone turned off its transponder during this operation, compelling Russian forces to activate their air defense systems to track it.

Phantom skies: A U.S. RQ-4B drone was lost over the Black Sea
Photo credit: Reddit

The Global Hawk, with an estimated cost of $222 million per aircraft, stands as one of the most advanced Western drones available. It boasts an impressive endurance of over 32 hours and features a 40-meter wingspan. This aircraft captured global headlines back in June 2019 when one, operating in “full stealth mode,” was shot down near Iranian air defense systems. 

In previous years, the U.S. Air Force has taken bold steps to test Russian air defenses. Notably, over the last two years, they’ve deployed F-35 fifth-generation fighters to gather electronic data on systems such as the S-300 and S-400. 

When it comes to operations in Eastern Europe, Colonel Craig Andrle, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing, shed some light during an interview in early 2023. He stated, “We weren’t crossing the border. We’re not shooting anything or dropping anything. But the jet is always sensing, gathering information. And it was doing that very, very well… We had all hoped it was going to work like it’s supposed to, but then to see it actually perform very, very well in that role was great.”

'US slap' for Russia: HIMARS destroyed S-400 on Russian soil
Photo credit: Telegram

Before the conflict in Ukraine escalated in early 2022, Russian air defense systems in western Syria were a major focus for intelligence-gathering efforts. Russia places significant reliance on ground-based air defense systems to secure its airspace. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, investments in these systems have far outpaced those in combat aviation. 

The recent deployment of the Global Hawk to the Black Sea comes on the heels of successful Ukrainian strikes against Russian air defense systems. For instance, on May 22, U.S.-supplied ATACMS ballistic missiles with cluster warheads reportedly destroyed several launch vehicles from an S-400 system near Klenivka in the Donetsk region. Western intelligence likely helped pinpoint the location of these targets. 

Ukraine has benefited immensely from access to a network of over 800 Western satellites and support from Western aircraft operating near Russian territory, including the Global Hawk. Additionally, deployments of personnel from Western Bloc nations on the ground have played crucial roles in assisting Ukraine with the effective use of more complex weaponry against Russian positions.

Su-27 blocked USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk approaching the Russian border
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

As NATO members increasingly allow Ukraine to use its ballistic and cruise missiles on more distant Russian targets, there is a strong expectation that intelligence, including targeting data from Western Bloc drones and aircraft, will play a crucial role.

The RQ-4B Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] developed by Northrop Grumman. It is primarily used by the United States Air Force for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] missions. The drone is designed to provide continuous, all-weather, day or night coverage of large geographic areas with high-resolution synthetic aperture radar [SAR] and electro-optical/infrared [EO/IR] sensors. 

In terms of dimensions, the RQ-4B Global Hawk has a wingspan of approximately 130.9 feet [39.8 meters], a length of 47.6 feet [14.5 meters], and a height of 15.3 feet [4.7 meters]. These dimensions make it one of the largest UAVs in operation, allowing it to carry a significant payload of sensors and communications equipment. 

Japan received an RQ-4B surveillance UAV with Raytheon's EISS
Photo credit: Brozo

The propulsion system of the RQ-4B Global Hawk consists of a single Rolls-Royce AE 3007H turbofan engine. This engine provides the necessary thrust to achieve a maximum speed of around 357 miles per hour [575 kilometers per hour] and allows the drone to reach altitudes of up to 60,000 feet [18,288 meters]. The UAV has impressive endurance, capable of remaining airborne for more than 32 hours.

The technical characteristics of the RQ-4B Global Hawk include advanced avionics, autonomous flight control systems, and a robust communication suite. The UAV is equipped with a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar [SAR] that can penetrate clouds and provide detailed ground images. Additionally, it features electro-optical/infrared [EO/IR] sensors for capturing visual and thermal imagery. These systems enable the Global Hawk to perform a wide range of ISR missions with great precision. 

The RQ-4B Global Hawk is equipped with various types of systems to enhance its operational capabilities. These include satellite communication systems for beyond-line-of-sight control, a mission management system for real-time data processing, and an onboard data link for transmitting information to ground stations. The UAV also has a de-icing system to ensure reliable operation in adverse weather conditions. 

Japan received an RQ-4B surveillance UAV with Raytheon's EISS
Photo credit: DocPlayer.net

The primary purpose of the RQ-4B Global Hawk is to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. It provides commanders with near-real-time, high-resolution imagery, and data, which is crucial for strategic planning and decision-making. The UAV is used for a variety of applications, including battlefield monitoring, border security, disaster response, and environmental monitoring. Its ability to cover vast areas and operate for extended periods makes it an invaluable asset for military and civilian operations.

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