Northrop to modify retired Global Hawks for SkyRange hypersonic test efforts

By Briana Reilly / December 14, 2021 at 11:08 AM

Northrop Grumman is working with the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center to reconfigure a handful of retired Global Hawks to support ongoing hypersonics system testing efforts through the SkyRange program, the company announced this week.

The four RQ-4 Block 20 unmanned aircraft, which had been converted to the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node variant, were transferred to the center in fiscal year 2021 by the Air Force, according to the report accompanying the Senate Appropriations Committee's mark of the FY-22 defense spending bill.

Northrop's press release announcing receipt of the DOD task order noted modifications of the four aircraft would include adding "sensors to demonstrate an alternative data collection support system," with work expected to occur at the company's Grand Sky facility in North Dakota.

The company is beginning engineering and planning work, the release added, but didn't include details on the effort or the timeline for completing it.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) said in a press release today the contract marks "an important step" for advancing the SkyRange effort in his state.

"With divestment of the Global Hawk Block 20s, we've worked to secure a real opportunity to leverage the expertise we've built at Grand Sky and repurpose these aircraft to support hypersonic missile testing," Hoeven said.

The Air Force's FY-22 budget request included plans to retire the Block 20 and Block 30 RQ-4s, leaving the Block 40 airframes for high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Hoeven this fall had called on the Air Force to transfer all 20 of the Block 30s, once divested, to North Dakota's Grand Sky business and aviation park, and to base the SkyRange effort there.

The goal of SkyRange, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee's report, is to use "unmanned aerial systems-based range sensors to support hypersonic flight tests." The push leverages high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles to bolster or replace the fleet of ships used for hypersonic flight testing and other traditional data collection assets, according to an Arnold Engineering Development Complex press release from last fall.