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UAV Funding Hits Budget Turbulence

The recently released 2013 Pentagon budget request calls for unmanned aircraft to do more of the military’s work in years to come. But a decision about manned missions has executives at drone-maker Northrop Grumman Corp. surprised.

Previously, the Pentagon had called for a version of Northrop’s robotic Global Hawk aircraft to take the place of the U-2 spy aircraft. The U-2 first flew in 1955 and took center stage as the Cold War played out during the 1960s.

Now the Pentagon is reversing course. The Defense Department said in a recent statement that it wants to cancel a U.S. Air Force order for the Global Hawk Block 30 variant, and continue using the U-2, built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The reason, the Pentagon says, is cost.

“The intent of the Block 30 was to take the place of the U-2 for taking pictures,” said Maj. Chad Steffey, a spokesman for the Secretary of the Air Force, by email. “Capabilitywise, the Block 30 sensors do not match the U-2’s performance levels in a cost-effective manner.”

Northrop executive Jim Zortman said Northrop executives were surprised by the announcement, and said that the Air Force had praised the Global Hawk program not too long ago.

He disputed the government’s assertions about cost, and said Global Hawk has several advantages over the U-2. For example, it can stay in the air for a day and a half, while the manned U-2 is limited to flights of eight to 10 hours. What’s more, Global Hawk can operate multiple sensors, while the U-2 is limited to one mission at a time, according to Zortman, who is sector vice president and site manager of Northrop’s Unmanned Systems Center in Rancho Bernardo.

Not the End of Global Hawk

Northrop has 1,600 to 1,700 people at work on the Global Hawk in Southern California and of those, fewer than 1,000 work on the program in Rancho Bernardo, Zortman said. The San Diego office concentrates on engineering and software, not manufacturing.

If budgets are cut, there will likely be some reductions in employment, Zortman said.

Now the budget has to make its way through Congress. “The budget is a long process,” Zortman said, adding that the Pentagon’s budget request “is but one of many steps.”

Lockheed says its modern version of its U-2 is 40 percent larger than the original, and carries four times the sensor capacity of the original model.

The decision to cut the Block 30 aircraft does not affect other variations of Global Hawk, including the Block 20 and Block 40, whose capabilities are different from the U-2. A Navy version of Global Hawk is also in the works.

The bottom line is that if the government terminates the Block 30 program, it will not be the end of Global Hawk.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget request has better news for another drone program. It calls for funding 65 combat air patrols using General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.’s Predator and Reaper aircraft, up from 61 in the current year. Each combat air patrol can include as many as four aircraft.

The 2013 spending plan calls for the Air Force to surge up to 85 combat air patrols, if necessary.

A GA-ASI spokeswoman said the company does not comment on a military budget that has not been finalized.

Reducing the Deficit

The fiscal 2013 blueprint has $525 billion in the Pentagon’s base budget, down from $531 billion in fiscal 2012. As part of the federal government’s attempt to bring down the deficit, the Pentagon is attempting to cut $487 billion in spending over 10 years.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget request also makes a call for base realignments and closures.

In other news from the unmanned aircraft world, Northrop announced recently that it has made progress in efforts to refuel drone aircraft while they are in flight.

Northrop recently tested hardware and software for the in-flight refueling in Florida. The tests, for the U.S. Navy, involved a military tanker as well as a Learjet running Northrop code. The business jet served as a surrogate for Northrop’s X-47B unmanned carrier-based jet.

According to a statement from Northrop, the pilot of the Learjet took his hands off the controls about a mile away from a K707 tanker and let the computer take over for a rendezvous with the bigger aircraft.

The test program included several mock refuelings.


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