The OUE has been long-awaited by Northrop Grumman, which overcame numerous challenges to deliver the Block 40, including struggles to develop, calibrate and complete radar testing. RTIP has undergone 454.9 hr. of tests, the program officials say. Commanders in Afghanistan have called for more ground surveillance, and company officials see time in theater as a chance for the Block 40 to prove itself.
But the UAS may have already missed its window of opportunity to earn a place in the arsenal. While project overseers prepare for the OUE, they must still undergo the methodical initial operational test and evaluation process by which Pentagon testers wring the system out. That is not slated to start until May 2014, and would include evaluations of only some of the radar's originally planned modes, such as tracking moving ground targets, collecting radar pictures and—unique to RTIP—executing both modes simultaneously without “breaking track” on a target.
More exotic modes, such as high-range resolution allowing precise measurements of targets, were shelved during development as too ambitious in the near term. These modes will not be able to compete for funding until fiscal 2016 at the soonest, Air Force officials say.
The Block 40 has also lacked a powerful constituency in the Pentagon. The mission for which it is designed is conducted now by the Joint Stars aircraft, managed by Northrop Grumman and housed on a Boeing 707. The data collected supports U.S. Army, not air, operations, so an Air Force community never formed to champion this capability.
Talk of a Block 40 kill has been rampant at the Pentagon. One defense official says this was a “lit fuse,” giving the program a “50/50 chance” of survival in today's tight budget environment.
Northrop Grumman has delivered eight of 11 Block 40 aircraft on order, according to Alfredo Ramirez, chief engineer at Northrop. Sixteen Block 30s of 31 planned have been delivered, says company spokeswoman Gemma Loochkartt. Early work on the next of each block is underway at the company's Moss Point, Miss., facility, and both are slated for delivery in 2014.
Congress has moved to keep the Block 30 flying through 2014, despite the Air Force proposal; aircraft have been operating out of Al Dhafra AB in the United Arab Emirates since late 2001 in support of post 9/11 operations.
A Block 40 kill would leave the Air Force with six Block 20 aircraft, four of which were quickly outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node payload designed to enhance communications in Centcom.
Meanwhile, NATO's work on the Alliance Ground Surveillance program continues, as does the U.S. Navy's program to outfit a Global Hawk platform with a maritime surveillance capability. The Navy is slated to spend $11.4 billion developing and building 68 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft to augment its burgeoning P-8 fleet. Some defense officials suggest BAMS is safeguarded from cancellation by the Navy's methodical procurement approach.