Northrop Grumman Corp. is in line for billions of dollars’ worth of work on its Global Hawk unmanned high-altitude spy aircraft program over the next 10 years.
The aircraft lets the U.S. Air Force collect images of the ground, track targets and collect signals intelligence, all from an altitude of 11 miles.
The U.S. Department of Defense announced on Oct. 9 that it plans to issue a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), the aircraft’s original and current builder. The Pentagon considers the company the only entity that can perform work as a prime contractor “without the government incurring unacceptable delays and substantial duplication of costs not recoverable through competition,” according to a presolitication notice on a government website.
The contract announcement comes as a similar contract is winding up.
The indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract that the government plans to issue has a ceiling of $4.8 billion, though it is unclear whether the government would opt to spend that much. Subsequent contracts will determine actual spending. The proposed contract covers development, production, modernization, retrofit and sustainment activities for all U.S. Air Force Global Hawk aircraft.
Engineered in San Diego
“Global Hawk obviously has a place” in the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, said John Salafia, deputy program director for Global Hawk, adding that the Air Force has a lot of other resources at its disposal.
Salafia is based in Northrop Grumman’s Rancho Bernardo offices, which are the center for engineering and program management for Global Hawk. The business declined to say how many employees it has working on the program. (The company, which also runs unrelated defense programs in San Diego, does not disclose how many people it has working in San Diego.)
Publicly at least, the type of work the Air Force intends to buy is not yet defined. The service could conceivably spend money to build more aircraft, but retrofitting and modernizing current aircraft will be the “sweet spot of the contract,” Salafia said.
The government plans to place orders under the contract between 2021 and 2025, and expects the contractor to do work through 2030.
A few billion dollars spent on Global Hawk is a relatively small amount when considered in the global context.
The worldwide production of unmanned military aircraft is expected to reach $90 billion over the next 10 years, according to a November 2018 forecast from the Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia. Production of civil, or nonmilitary, unmanned aircraft will total $88.3 billion over the next 10 years, the research organization added in June.
34-Hour Flights Possible
The Global Hawk is 47 feet long with a wingspan of 131 feet. It is powered by a single Rolls Royce jet engine. It weighs 16 tons at takeoff, can carry a payload of 3,000 pounds and can reach altitudes of 60,000 feet, or 11 miles.
The aircraft is able to travel 1,200 nautical miles from its base to its station, loiter over that area for 24 hours, and then travel 1,200 nautical miles back, all while providing intelligence, Salafia said. It has achieved flights as long as 34 hours. Global Hawk is able to fly at the edge of protected airspace and observe the land below protected airspace, Northrop Grumman officials said.
The Air Force is eyeing future capabilities for the aircraft, company officials said, including several new sensors. They include Collins Aerospace’s MS-177 sensor, which is related to the sensor flown in the manned U-2S aircraft. The sensor collects light in the visible as well as infrared spectra.
Early versions of Global Hawk had their sensors bolted permanently to the aircraft, Salafia said. Today, the aircraft is constructed with an open architecture, allowing the Air Force to change sensors.
Carrying electronics known as BACN, a Global Hawk can operate as a sort of cell tower in the sky, letting disparate military radios talk to each other. The Air Force has used the capability in mountainous areas, and also flies BACN electronics in converted business jets. BACN stands for Battlefield Airborne Communications Node.
Ground Station Updates
Northrop Grumman is working with the Air Force on a ground station modernization program, increasing the number of “cockpits” for on-the-ground aircraft operators. The program is in the development and test phase now, officials said. Asked about what needed improvement, company representatives offered no specific answer, saying technology has gotten better in the last decade.
Northrop Grumman builds the aircraft at a secure factory in Palmdale. It is beginning work on Global Hawk aircraft for South Korea and NATO this year. NATO is buying five aircraft, South Korea is buying four and Japan is buying three.
The Navy has its own version of the Global Hawk, known as Triton, with a sensor package optimized for over-ocean flights. The Navy is buying 69 Tritons while the government of Australia has ordered six, according to the builder. Australia’s order may increase to seven.
Global Hawk is a uniquely San Diego project, Salafia said. Ryan Aeronautical developed the aircraft at its offices near Lindbergh Field and first flew it in 1998. Northrop Grumman bought Ryan the following year.
An aircraft from the Global Hawk family was in the news earlier this year. Iran shot down a U.S. Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (or BAMS-D) aircraft on June 19 over the Strait of Hormuz, according to an account from U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Navy. The United States said the aircraft was flying in international airspace. The aircraft is similar to the Air Force Global Hawk.