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Northrop Grumman Defends Global Hawk Cost

By | April 17, 2006


      The fact that the Global Hawk aircraft is evolving over the course of its production is a strength of the program, rather than a sign of Pentagon misdirection, according to a representative from Northrop Grumman Corp., which makes the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the Air Force.

      In a report, and in recent congressional testimony, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has raised the point that the Global Hawk has undergone multiple changes in the midst of the production process, with negative effects for the program.

      These changes have come largely because the Pentagon "lacks a viable strategic plan" to guide its investment decisions regarding UAVs, as the GAO’s Sharon Pickup, director of defense capabilities and management, stated at a congressional hearing earlier this month.

      But changes in the program were and are justifiable, according to Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman’s director of business development for the Global Hawk.

      "Yes, the requirements [for the Global Hawk] have increased. But they have increased for a very specific reason," he said. Namely, the UAV has acquired additional capabilities that the Air Force wants, he said.

      "From an accountant’s standpoint," it may seem unclear why the program should change during the course of production, Walby said. "[But] from the warfighter’s perspective, it’s just what they want."

      Northrop Grumman can hand over the next batch of aircraft with the introduction, "`I’ve doubled your sensors,’" for example, Walby said.

      Global Hawk flies autonomously for up to 35 hours at a time, at an altitude of at least 60,000 feet, according to Northrop Grumman. "During a single mission, it can travel more than 10,000 nautical miles from its take-off location, and it provides detailed image-based intelligence on 40,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of Illinois," the company said.

      Global Hawks have flown more than 5,500 combat hours in more than 250 missions in support of the U.S. war on terrorism, the company said.

      "They’ve been performing extremely well overseas," and the Air Force has plans to expand the number of operating locations for Global Hawk abroad, Walby said.

      Four Blocks

      Northrop Grumman announced that it had delivered to the Air Force its sixth Global Hawk, which technically bears the designation of RQ-4. But reflecting the fact that the Global Hawk is growing in capabilities as the company produces the aircraft, Northrop Grumman has adopted the nomenclature of blocks to refer to different groups of Global Hawks with different levels of capabilities, Walby said.

      Northrop Grumman is now producing the first group of Block 10 Global Hawks.

      With its latest announcement, Northrop Grumman has delivered the sixth of what will be a total of seven Global Hawks in the Block 10 allotment. Northrop Grumman expects to deliver the seventh and last Block 10 version of the aircraft this summer.

      Walby called the Block 10 version of Global Hawk "the basic first-production version" of the aircraft.

      Northrop Grumman now is in the process of manufacturing the second batch of Global Hawks, Block 20.

      The Block 20 versions will bring a "significant difference in [the] aircraft," Walby said, referring to Global Hawk as "a spiral program."

      Northrop Grumman already has seven Block 20 versions in production, and will start conducting flights of this variant in November, Walby said. The company expects to start delivering the Block 20s in the spring of 2007.

      Key advancements in the Block 20 versions, over the Block10s, he said, include the Global Hawk’s adoption of an open-systems architecture that allows for an easy exchange of sensors, and its ability to carry significantly more payload, Walby said.

      Under the Global Hawk program, Northrop Grumman is under contract to supply a total of 54 copies of the unmanned aircraft to the Air Force. The company anticipates, at this point, that in the process of producing this total, it will go through two more iterations of Global Hawk: that is, Blocks 30 and 40, according to Walby.

      Northrop Grumman expects to deliver the last of the 54 Global Hawks in 2012, Walby said.

      The Block 40 aircraft will be the last produced under the currently programmed dollars, but there may be more versions of Global Hawk to follow thereafter, Walby said, noting that "there’s already a move" to acquire more production aircraft beyond the 54 now contracted.

      Northrop Grumman puts the total dollar value of the current contract at around $4 billion, according to a company spokesman, who acknowledged that the total dollar figure is open to interpretation and that the GAO has come up with a higher total figure.

      Walby also cited some difference of viewpoint between Northrop Grumman and the GAO regarding the price of the individual aircraft.

      For Block 10 versions of Global Hawk, he said, the GAO has cited a per-unit cost of more than $70 million-a figure that includes all developmental costs, Walby said. While not disputing the GAO’s figures, Walby said that when one calculates the price without the nonrecurring costs such as basic research, the Block 10 aircraft cost about $36 million apiece.

      So if the Air Force were to come back and say it wants one more of those aircraft, the price would be $36 million, not $70 million, Walby said.

      The Global Hawk also brings the advantage of a relatively low cost to operate per flight hour: about $13,000, Walby said. That may sound like a lot of money to a layperson, but Walby said that the Global Hawk is "on par with a business jet" in terms of hourly operating costs, and far less costly to operate than, say, an F-15, which could cost $15,000 or more to fly for an hour.

      As for the U-2 spy plane, which the Global Hawk one day may succeed, it costs about $23,000 per flight hour to operate, Walby said.

      With Block 20, the Global Hawk will start to benefit from the open-systems architecture to which Northrop Grumman engineers refer as "plug and play," Walby said.

      Unlike the seven Block 10 aircraft.

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