A month ago, two Russian fighter jets deliberately brought down an American Reaper drone on a reconnaissance mission over the Black Sea by dumping fuel on it. While the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) wreck did not bear any sensitive components that inquisitive Russians might obtain if its plan to recover the debris off the deep sea succeeded, the incident serves as a reminder of the value of this sophisticated US military equipment. Not just in terms of cost, but the amount of insider intel adversaries could possibly extract from these state-of-the-art platforms.

Following this incident, the US has reportedly reduced its RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV operations over the Black Sea to avoid repeating what happened.

According to a report by RIA Novosti, the last time the sophisticated American strategic drone flew over the maritime territory near the Crimea region was on March 21, citing Flightradar24 with confirmation obtained by the news agency from an informed source. Since then, the US Air Force has drastically scaled down the number of Global Hawk based in Sicily deployed to the airspace in the Black Sea.

Between March 21 and April 20, the American drone reportedly performed only thee flights, but all within the Romanian airspace at more than 400 kilometers (248 miles) from Crimea. That’s twice over the UAV’s radar capacity, receiving radar images of the terrain up to a maximum range of 200 km (124 miles), the Russian state-owned news outlet wrote.

Before the March 14 incident, the American Global Hawk drones conducted an average of eight to ten reconnaissance flights per month since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

“After the incident with the American Reaper drone, which fell into the waters of the Black Sea on March 14, only two more Global Hawk flights were performed over the Black Sea – on March 17 and March 12 – both at a distance of no closer than 140 kilometers (87 miles) from the southern coast of Crimea,” an unnamed source told RIA Novosti.

The informed source continued: “On the one hand, at such a range, the amount of information received by the UAV is sharply reduced; on the other hand, after March 14, the American side was in danger of losing such a device, and the Global Hawk is several times more expensive than the Reaper and is saturated with the most advanced equipment.”

More Expensive and Valuable Than Reaper UAV

Reportedly, the Global Hawk UAV is far more expensive than the Reaper drone, valuing around $200 million per unit. The US Air Force previously said a unit MQ-9 cost roughly $32 million each.

Moreover, the RQ/MQ-4 drone has a broader range of 22,000 km (13,670 mi) and a flight endurance of up to 36 hours, considering its primary mission involves long-range surveillance. Compared to the Reaper UAV, which emphasizes its lethal capacity as the services’ hunter-killer drone.

imagery taken from Global Hawk
An aerial view imagery taken from US Navy’s Global Hawk capturing the wildfires in Northern California, 2008. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the rise of other strategic recon drones, the Global Hawk remains the best high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV today and possibly in years to come as it continues to receive upgrades to expand its intelligence-gathering capabilities further.

Besides the high cost, the drone also features one of the world’s most advanced reconnaissance equipment and systems, including radar, an optical location system, and infrared sensors. If the UAV were to fall into the wrong hands, it might be stripped down into components for research and possibly replication purposes. This was the case with the downed Reaper back on March 14, with Russia expressing interest in recovering the wreck despite plummeting in the deepest part of the Black Sea.

New Contract Mod for Global Hawk

In other news, Northrop Grumman recently received a $16 million contract modification to sustain the Global Hawk UAV further.

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Reportedly, the modification involves buying replacement parts for operational use, supporting depot repairs, and making two engineering changes to address the decreasing availability of manufacturing sources for products under the primary contract.

With the newly awarded contract, the total cumulative face value of the RQ-4 now increased to more than $250 million.

The Global Hawk program will receive long-term support through a sustainment contract modification that is anticipated to be finished by February 24, 2028. Since it emerged in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the aircraft has aided national security missions and remains a valuable resource for the United States Air Force and foreign customers.

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