House accounting slip threatens Global Hawk production rate

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The legislative outlook for the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle programme has worsened with the discovery of an accounting slip in a budget provision, even as the company’s production team celebrates passing two milestones.

Ed Walby, Northrop’s director of Global Hawk business development, says House appropriators mistakenly voted to cut a third vehicle from next year’s production contract.

The House provision proposes to slash two air vehicles valued at $110 million. However, Northrop has calculated that the proposed budget cut would eliminate three vehicles, or 60% of the USAF’s planned purchase next year.

The Senate has not declared a position on the action by the House, but the Global Hawk’s supporters now have to hope that the House mistake will be corrected even if the original cut is not overturned.

The House notes that it is proposing the cut because Northrop has been unable to meet the production rate and the programme needs to “stabilise” after a $194 million cost overrun.

However, Walby argues that the House’s budget cut would be counter-productive, saying it “throws a wrench into the programme and causes a lot of disruption”. If the provision is kept, the production line would decline from six aircraft in fiscal year 2005 to just two in fiscal year 2006.

Meanwhile, development is moving forward on the RQ-4B’s extended wing and vertical tail, which along with the lengthened fuselage were blamed for design delays that caused the budget overrun.

Vought Aircraft has delivered the wing and it is now being mated to the airframe. Aurora Flight Sciences was scheduled to ship the vertical tails on 28 July and the first RQ-4B will fly next June or July, says Walby.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC