Northrop Fights For Global Hawk As Triton Flights Start

By Guy Norris, Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

The Navy hopes to field the first three Tritons—an early operational capability—to the 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf in fiscal 2016. Initial operational capability is slated when the fourth arrives there. The second batch is slated for operations in Asia and the Pacific. The third is going to the Mediterranean region, says Rear Adm. Sean Buck, who command's the Navy's patrol and reconnaissance group.

SDD-1, the first of two developmental Tritons, will be joined by SDD-2 in 2-3 months says Mike Mackey, Northrop's Triton deputy program director. A third developmental MQ-4C, company-funded, will join the pair at Pax River early next year for electromagnetic interference testing. Flights during the first phase will be every 7-10 days with the duration of each gradually increasing to about 12 hr.

Issues with the aircraft's integrated mission management computer and flight-control surfaces delayed the first-flight milestone. “We took a regimented and strong systems-engineering approach,” says Mackey. Vibration testing also revealed a potential coupled flutter issue in a particular “corner” of the planned flight envelope. Northrop is adding a counterbalance to the V-tail ruddervaters, Mackey says. Due to the MQ-4C's mission profile, it must be capable of flying at lower altitudes than the Air Force's Global Hawk.

In parallel, the heart of the Triton—its Multifunction Active Sensor (MFAS) radar—is flying on a Gulfstream 2 surrogate for risk reduction. Hoke says the sensor work is ahead of plan, thanks to added testing during the five-month vehicle delay. The two test vehicles are slated to be outfitted with MFAS sensors early next year in advance of flight trials at Pax River. Meanwhile, the aircraft's sophisticated suite of surveillance and communications sensors will be represented in the flight tests initially by weights.

The MFAS is designed for maritime detection, tracking and classification using maritime search, inverse synthetic aperture (ISAR) and SAR modes. To assist with target identification, the MQ-4C will also carry the Automatic Identification System, which provides information received from VHF broadcasts on maritime vessel movements around the world.

Low-rate production is set to start for Triton in fiscal 2015, a year later than planned. This has exposed Northrop to a potential production gap, as the Air Force is adamantly opposed to buying more Global Hawks and plans to mothball those now in service. Congress, however, is pushing the service to buy three more (Nos. 19-21), even though operations are not funded beyond fiscal 2014. One Air Force officer complained that this $500 million could be better spent on keeping flying squadrons—now grounded due to funding cuts—airborne. USAF still has two Block 30 Global Hawks, optimized for imagery collection, and two more Block 40s, outfitted with ground surveillance radars, to be delivered, says William Hancock, a service spokesman.

Northrop, desperate to keep the franchise alive, has offered the Air Force a fixed-price deal to reduce the Block 30's operating cost—a sore spot for service leadership—and replace the subpar Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, made by Raytheon, with the U-2's imager. The proposal includes a fixed price for 10 years of contractor logistics support with a presumed cost-per-flight-hour reduction of 40%.

“We understand the debate is around the need to reduce the operating and support cost, and the need in particular [of] operational requirements for increased range and resolution,” says Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. In a report to Congress, the Air Force says the flying-hour cost for the U-2, which Global Hawk was to replace, and the UAS are “roughly equal” at $33,564. But, “cost is not the factor,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers. Combatant commanders prefer the quality of the U-2's most recent Senior-Year Electro-Optical System (Syers) camera, made by Goodrich. Some also still insist on a need for Optical Bar Camera (OBC) images using wet film. This system is most often used for treaty verification because the images can be more easily shared with allies.

Air Force testers noted problems with the EISS imaging system two years ago during the Block 30's operational testing period, but the service still accepted it into the fleet. Only months later, amid funding cuts, the Air Force opted to remove Block 30 purchases from their budget (AW&ST Feb. 26, 2012, p. 34). This year, the service has also walked away from the Block 40.

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