Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Northrop Grumman Unveils New GlobalHawk

Northrop Grumman unveiled their latest version of the RQ-4 GlobalHawk UAV last Thursday, June 25, at their Palmdale, California manufacturing facility. The Block 40 GlobalHawk is designed specifically around the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) system which has been in developmental flight test at the Mojave Air & Space Port for the past three years. The new system is expected to provide the next generation of Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) imagery to the soldiers on the ground.

George Guerra, Northrop Grumman VP of HALE systems and Site Manager (above, right) stated, “GMTI is in such a huge demand today, and this aircraft will provide it.” Northrop Grumman Strike and Surveillance Systems Division Vice President Gerard Dufresne said this system “will provide a game-changing situational awareness to our war fighters.”

Northrop Grumman has been testing three developmental MP-RTIP units on Scaled Composites’ unique Proteus high altitude research aircraft at Mojave since 2006. According to Guerra, Mojave-based Proteus was used as “it gives us an advantage because it flies to 50,000 feet, so it’s pretty close to simulating the GlobalHawk environment. So, from a risk mitigation [point of view], it was a good way to get an early peek at how the system would perform at altitude.”

The MP-RTIP system is designed to be modular and scalable, with additional modules being added for installation on larger aircraft. Guerra described it, “it’s like a window, the bigger the window, the more you can see.” Originally, a larger MP-RTIP was intended to be installed on the proposed Air Force E-10, a modified Boeing 767-400ER, however that program was cancelled in 2007, and Boeing sold the prototype airframe to a customer in Bahrain, who had it converted to VIP configuration. Discussions are underway within in the Air Force, according to Guerra, to determine what will be the next large GMTI aircraft, and a scaled-up MP-RTIP is one of the possibilities being considered. However, there are no hard plans at this time to use MP-RTIP on any other platform besides GlobalHawk.

The first Block 40 aircraft, designated AF-18, is the 27th RQ-4 to be built, and the first of 15 that have been ordered by the Air Force. AF-18 will be flown to Edwards AFB in late July, where it will initially under envelope-expansion flight testing, due to changes in the airframe. In February 2010, the one of the three “developmental unit” radar systems will be modified from its Proteus configuration and mounted to AF-18 for the initial sensor integration flights. For a while, according to Guerra, Proteus will continue to be used for “different mode development work,” but ultimately the test program will be transitioned exclusively to GlobalHawk.

Current Air Force plans call for a total GlobalHawk fleet size of 54 aircraft, fifteen of which will be the Block 40 configuration. However, the service has also begun discussing increasing their fleet to a total of 77 aircraft, and there is expected to be some additional Block 40s in that number, according to Guerra. In addition, NATO is expected to order eight AGS aircraft.

While the Block 40 configuration represents the latest in GlobalHawk technological development, it certainly isn’t the culmination of the program. The German-partnered EuroHawk , which is based on the Block 20 configuration, is slated for unveiling later this years, as is the NATO AGS version of the Block 40. In addition, Guerra said that there are talks underway within Northrop Grumman and the Air Force, as a part of a “Requirements Planning Working Group”, regarding additional sensors that would be installed on a “notional Block 50” aircraft. “I think you’ll see a Block 50 in the near future,” said Guerra.

To date, all versions of GlobalHawk combined have accounted for over 2,000 missions and 32,000 flight hours, 75% of which was in combat, while posting a 97% mission effectiveness.

Steve Amburgey, GlobalHawk Program Director for the 303rd Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, thanked the “Palmdale production folks” for their work on the aircraft. “What you produce here is going to end up resulting in the saving of countless American lives,” he said. Northrop Grumman expects to keep production of the aircraft in the Antelope Valley.

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