MELBOURNE, Australia – The first Northrop-Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned aircraft destined for Japan took its maiden flight in the United States last week, as the Asian country ramps up its intelligence gathering capability to monitor North Korean and Chinese military activities.

In a news release, Northrop-Grumman said the high-altitude, long endurance drone conducted its maiden flight on April 15 from its facilities at Palmdale, California.

“The unarmed RQ-4B Global Hawk will provide Japan with on-demand intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information supporting the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s missions of protecting borders, monitoring threats and providing humanitarian assistance in times of need,” said Northrop’s Jane Bishop, vice president and general manager for autonomous systems.

Japan had its request to acquire the Global Hawk under the Foreign Military Sales program approved by the State Department in 2015. The approval included the installation of the Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, which includes a synthetic aperture radar, infrared/electro-optical sensors and signals-intelligence equipment for each of the aircraft.

A Defense Department contract worth $489.9 million for the Japanese aircraft was subsequently awarded to manufacturer Northrop-Grumman in November 2018, covering three Global Hawks, two ground control systems and associated spares, equipment and other services.

The Global Hawk is one of the key planks in Japan’s efforts to improve the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability of its self-defense forces, as the U.S. ally casts a wary eye over North Korea’s continuing missile and nuclear programs and China’s massive military modernization effort.

Deliveries of Japan’s Global Hawks are expected to be completed in 2023. The drones are slated to be based at Misawa in the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. In addition to Japan’s Global Hawks, the U.S. Air Force also deploys the type to Japan on a rotational basis, where they have been spotted on publicly accessible flight tracking software flying missions near Taiwan and to the South China.

In addition to the unmanned aircraft, Japan is also developing an array of space-based sensors, awaiting a third ocean surveillance ship and developing new intelligence-gathering aircraft to replace the current fleet of aging aircraft operated by its air and maritime self-defense forces.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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