Northrop sees rising demand for Global Hawks

The company is working closely with Air Force officials on addressing the concerns of Pentagon and Air Force acquisition executives over the growing cost of the program.

Northrop Grumman officials on Wednesday described a year of progress and ambitious plans for their high-flying, long-endurance Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle program, including possible additional foreign sales that would add to the more than 150 aircraft already built or under contract.

The officials said 2010 was the year "Global Hawk truly went global," with first flights of Air Force RQ-4s from two overseas bases, continued Air Force and Navy combat surveillance missions in the U.S. Central Command area, and advances in preparing the high-altitude drones for European allies.

George Guerra, vice president of the Northrop program, said the company also is in discussions with Japan on the possible purchase of four or five Global Hawks.

Meanwhile, Guerra said, the company is working closely with Air Force officials on more than 100 suggestions for addressing the concerns of Pentagon and Air Force acquisition executives over the growing cost of the program. Guerra said the initiatives being studied could reduce both production and sustainment costs to cut the overall price of the massive program, projected at more than $6 billion for just the Air Force effort.

Guerra would not quantify the possible savings pending the discussions with the Air Force.

Launched in the 1980s as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, Global Hawk experienced the all-too-common cost and schedule overruns. But the early developmental models were sent into combat, flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq. And the first group of aircraft, called Block 10s, are now flying missions over Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.

With a fuselage the size of a large business jet's and wings longer than a 747's, the jet-powered aircraft can fly higher than 65,000 feet and stay airborne for more than 30 hours, carrying a variety of sophisticated radars and other sensors and transmitting the information by satellite.

Current Global Hawks have an estimated unit cost of more than $30 million. But the Government Accountability Office said the aircraft cost $130 million when the expense of development, testing, and ground support stations is included.

Guerra said the Air Force Global Hawks and a Block 10 aircraft bought by the Navy as a demonstrator for its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program have amassed more than 37,000 hours of combat missions.

And, he noted, Air Force RQ-4s deployed to Guam and to Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily had their first flights this year, preparing for operational missions. The Navy also will use those bases for its maritime surveillance missions, which will reduce the operating costs for both services.

Northrop has built improved and enlarged Block 20 Global Hawks for the Air Force, is producing two even more sophisticated Air Force models, and has begun assembly of the first BAMS for the Navy.

The firm also is preparing an aircraft for a flight to Germany, where it will be matched with European-made sensors in the EuroHawk program. In addition, Northrop is building the first of at least six Global Hawks for NATO.

Several other allied countries, including Korea and Australia, have expressed interest in the Global Hawk.