Global Hawk's Success Draws In Competition

Staff Reporter

Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft, which has been actively engaged over Afghanistan, is under attack in more familiar territory namely, from several competing aerospace giants looking for a piece of the action.

The Century City-based company is nearing an agreement with the Air Force on its first production contract for 60 Global Hawk reconnaissance planes at $30 million each, with the first two to be delivered next year. Two of Northrop's four Global Hawk prototypes have been flying over Afghanistan, although one of them crashed late last month.

Unmanned aircraft, in development since the 1950s, have grown more important in recent years as the technology improves to the point where ground activity can be pinpointed with greater accuracy borne out by the hunt for terrorist bases in Afghanistan.

"Northrop Grumman is the industry leader now," said Philip Coyle, a senior fellow with the Center For Defense Information, a Washington think tank. "But this is a field that is still shaking out. Northrop Grumman will have to continue to deliver high-quality aircraft to stay competitive in this new field. It's clear that (competitors) are going after this business in a serious way."

Unmanned combat vehicle

The competition starts with Boeing Co., which in the wake of losing the $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter contract, established a separate unit in St. Louis designated for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Boeing recently announced that it would begin flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base for its X-45, an unmanned combat vehicle. Boeing's demonstrator beat out combat vehicle designs by Northrop, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. to win the $170 million design and development contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military's research and development office in 1999.

Production of the plane, to cost $10 million to $15 million each, could begin as early as 2005.

"There isn't one company with a lock on the UAV business," said Air Force Lt. Col. Douglas Boone, the Pentagon's acquisitions head for all airborne reconnaissance systems. "It's a very broad market. Different companies are seizing different little niches in that market."

Both Northrop and Boeing are in the design contract stage for an unmanned Navy combat vehicle. Contracts to build demonstrators will be awarded to both firms this spring.

"I would say the loss of the Joint Strike Fighter program certainly brings a heightened sense of importance for our unmanned systems program," said Todd Blecker, communications manager for Boeing's Military Aircraft and Missile Systems Group. "Our goal is to be a strong competitor to Northrop Grumman or any other company that's involved in the unmanned systems."

After losing the Air Force combat vehicle contract, Northrop is not taking any chances with the Navy version. The company invested tens of millions of its own dollars to create Pegasus, a technology demonstrator that engineers will begin flight testing later this year for use in building the Navy prototype that will go head-to-head with Boeing's version.

Status on the line

Although Northrop officials downplayed the importance of winning the contract, another loss would be a serious blow to Northrop's status.

"We are putting all our energy into winning this program," said Bob Mitchell, vice president for advanced development at Northrop's Air Combat Systems unit in El Segundo. "We would take it in stride if (another defeat) happened. There is always pressure to win any competition. I wouldn't say there is more or less (now.)"

Since research and development began in 1994, the Air Force has spent $560 million on Northrop's Global Hawk program. The Global Hawk prototype's crash in Afghanistan was a blow, although Northrop is still expected to get the production contract.

"The crash is obviously not a good thing," said Coyle. "It was untimely coming just before this new contract. Undoubtedly there will be something they need to change in the way of flying procedures or design. But I believe the program is going to go forward."

Northrop officials refused to comment on the crash.

Competition from Predator

Meanwhile, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. has delivered more than 60 of the 100 Predator surveillance aircraft to the Air Force for $3 million to $5 million each. Those planes are not seen as a threat to the Global Hawk, which can fly higher (65,000 to the Predator's limit of 25,000 feet), travel faster (350 to 92 miles per hour), fly longer (35 to 24 hours) and carry a heavier payload (2,000 to 450 pounds). Even the two prototype Predator B planes now in testing only fly up to 45,000 feet at 242 miles per hour with a payload capacity of 750 pounds.

Furthermore, the Global Hawk uses radars and electro-optical cameras to locate a target, while the Predator is used for lower altitude video recording to track the target once it has been sited.

"There is not even a consideration to replace the Global Hawk with the Predator B," said Boone. "They both fill a different niche. Depending on your situation, you need one or the other."

While the Air Force wants to keep the Global Hawk as a surveillance plane the only planned change entails increasing the maximum payload to 3,000 pounds in 2004 officials envision turning the Predator into a combat vehicle.

Last summer, the Air Force scored direct hits on stationary test targets from 12 of 16 100-pound Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles fired from the Predator, Pentagon officials said. Another missile reportedly was fired from the aircraft in Afghanistan and destroyed a target.

Finally, Lockheed Martin is eager to sell an unmanned version of its famous U-2 spy plane, which the Global Hawk was designed to one day replace. Although the Pentagon has previously shunned the version, billed as the U-2U, some lawmakers are reportedly gaining interest.

"What we're doing is assessing our capabilities and looking at partnerships with other companies," said Dianne Knippel, communications manager at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

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