Northrop Is Taking Another Go With Unmanned Decoy

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

The Air Force is giving Northrop Grumman Corp. a second chance at developing an unmanned aerial decoy that would trick enemy radar and divert attention from the real thing.

The L.A.-based defense giant is one of a handful of contractors preparing proposals to submit within 45 days for a contract to develop a new version of the Miniature Air-Launch Decoy, a drone that flies at supersonic speeds.

An earlier program by Northrop to create the plane came to a halt a year ago after tests of a prototype revealed problems with the vehicle's engine.

But Air Force officials still want 1,500 MALDs, at an average per-unit production of $125,000, with the first 150 coming during the systems development and demonstration period. A contract is expected to be awarded this fall and runs through 2008.

"(Northrop) had some tests that didn't go as planned," said Gloria Cales, an Air Force spokeswoman. "But we still have operational needs for this. That's why we decided to restructure the program."

A request for proposals was issued Jan. 14. Air Force officials said they did not know which contractors would be competing with Northrop.

Funding comes on top of the $50 million that has already been invested during the program's original phase from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development arm of the Pentagon. The Air Force itself has put an additional $13 million into MALD.

MALDs are 8-foot-long, missile-shaped vehicles that would be launched from B-52 bombers and F-16 fighter jets as soon as radar warning receivers show the planes have been picked up by enemy radar.

By transmitting radar signals that mimic B-52 and F-16 flight patterns and radar, MALDs would not only trick the enemy into assuming they are actual planes but they would reveal enemy air defense locations.

Northrop's UAV dominance

"It builds upon the technology that Northrop Grumman has already demonstrated with other UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) systems," said Cynthia Curiel, a Northrop spokeswoman. "The idea is we're developing a system that can be used for different applications. This builds upon our portfolio."

Northrop makes the Global Hawk, considered to be the military's best unmanned reconnaissance plane.

Preliminary specifications call for the 100-pound MALDs to fly at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet for 20 minutes, covering 290 miles. But the Air Force could change those requirements during the development phase.

Northrop is already investing an unspecified amount of its own funds to develop radar-jamming software that would be placed in the nose of the MALD.

The objective would be for U.S. planes to fire two or three MALDs one after another blocking enemy radar systems for 40 to 60 minutes, and giving pilots enough time to complete their strike missions.

During initial testing of Northrop's first MALD in July 2001, Air Force Major Aaron George and civilian Judson Brohmer were killed while photographing the decoy plane when the F-16B jet they were riding in crashed 30 miles east of the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake.

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