Are U.S. Global Hawk Drones Helping Ukraine Take Out Russia’s S-400s and Other Air Defences?

Following the U.S. Air Force deployment of a Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone for flights over the Black Sea near Russian territory, widespread reports from Russian sources have indicated that the aircraft was being used to survey  the country’s air defences to support future air defence suppression efforts in the region. An example was the statement by military analyst Dmitry Drozdenko, speaking to state media outlet Sputnik, that the aircraft appeared to be engaging in a “provocative attempt to uncover Russian air defence systems in this area” to help the Ukrainian Army subsequently target them. He highlighted that the American drone notably turned off its transponder during the operation, which would force Russian forces to activate their air defence systems to track it. The Global Hawk costs an estimated $222 million per aircraft, and represents one of the most advanced Western drones in service boasting an endurance of over 32 hours and a 40 meter wingspan. The aircraft previously captured global attentions after one operating in “full stealth mode” was shot down in or near Iranian airspace by a local air defence system in June 2019. 

The U.S. Air Force has made significant deployments to test Russian air defences in the past, most prominently in the last two years using F-35 fifth generation fighters to collect electronic data on assets such as S-300 and S-400 systems. Regarding operations in Eastern Europe, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing Colonel Craig Andrle elaborated in an interview in early 2023: “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.” Preceding the escalation of hostilities in Ukraine in early 2022, Russian air defence systems deployed in western Syria were primary targets of such intelligence collection efforts. Russia relies very heavily on ground based air defence assets to protect its airspace, with investment in acquiring these kinds of systems having been several times as high as investment in combat aviation since the end of the Cold War.

The deployment of the Global Hawk to the Black Sea notably follows growing successes by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in striking Russian air defence systems. On May 22 U.S.-supplied ATACMS ballistic missiles with cluster warheads were reportedly used to destroy multiple launch vehicles from an S-400 system near the village of Klenivka in the Donetsk region, with intelligence on the location of the target likely to have been provided by Western sources. Ukrainian has benefitted not only from access to a network of over 800 Western satellites, but also to support from Western aircraft flying near Russian territory, the Global Hawk being an example, as well as major deployments of personnel from Western Bloc states on the ground to support its use of more complex weaponry against Russian positions among other roles. As NATO members have given Ukraine growing leeway to employ its ballistic and cruise missiles against targets deeper inside Russia, it is expected that intelligence including targeting data from Western Bloc drones and aircraft will continue to be relied on heavily.

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