The U.S. military has selected Guam — a U.S. territory in the Pacific strategically located to host forces capable of monitoring North Korea — as the next base for its most advanced unmanned plane.
Pacific Air Forces Cmdr. Gen. Gary North said Thursday that the Global Hawk drone will help the Air Force gather intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance.
North said the unmanned planes would complement missions currently operated by the U-2 spy plane and the RC-135, another surveillance plane, in the Asia-Pacific region. The U-2 plane, for example, is used for missions in South Korean airspace.
The Air Force was planning a ceremony to formally welcome the planes to Andersen Air Force Base on Monday. It plans to base three of the remotely operated planes on the U.S. territory about 2,000 miles southeast of the Korean peninsula.
The plane can fly at altitudes of 60,000 feet — high above most countries’ defenses. It’s able to stay in the air for more than 32 hours at a time, in part because it doesn’t need to swap crews.
"It flies for more than a day — and it flies at very good speeds — so you could transit a long distance and then be able to recover at your home base," North said. "When you can keep it up for 30 hours or more, that is tremendous."
Bruce Bechtol, an expert on security issues on the Korean peninsula, said the U.S. is likely to use the planes to monitor North Korea’s military from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
"You need this because, for lack of a better term, North Korea has a lot of stuff — tanks, trucks, guns, artillery, fighting positions," said Bechtol, an associate professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. "You need a very efficient, very wide-ranging, wide-seeing unmanned aerial vehicle system to collect against an army that’s as big as North Korea’s."
North declined to discuss specific nations the Global Hawk would be monitoring.
He said the planes also would have roles in responding to disasters, similar to last January when the Air Force sent one to survey earthquake damage in Haiti. They may also be used to combat piracy and terrorism.
The planes could be used to help the Coast Guard monitor for illegal fishing in U.S. waters in the Pacific, he said.
The planes are currently only based in two other places: Beale Air Force Base in California and an "undisclosed location" under the responsibility of the U.S. Central Command.
The command’s area stretches from central Asia to eastern Africa.