Germany's Eurohawk surveillance programme has passed one of its early production milestones, with Northrop Grumman having recently mated the high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle's wing and fuselage at its Palmdale facility in California.
Based on the company's Block 20 RQ-4B Global Hawk, which made its first flight for the US Air Force in March 2007, the Eurohawk system is being developed as an unmanned replacement for the German navy's remaining inventory of two Dassault-Breguet Atlantic signals intelligence aircraft.
Now in a $559 million development and test phase being performed by Friedrichshafen-based EADS/Northrop joint venture Eurohawk GmbH, the project involves the production of one aircraft and associated mission equipment, plus options on a further four UAVs and ground system elements.
Northrop is providing an essentially off-the-shelf USAF airframe, while its European partner is responsible for developing the Eurohawk's SIGINT mission suite and German-unique ground-based sensor exploitation system.
New surveillance equipment carried in the aircraft's nose and a range of antennas beneath its wings will be used to detect communications and electronic emissions from potentially hostile sources following the type's planned entry into service in the next decade.
Although the programme's first airframe is only around two-thirds complete, with its engine installation yet to be performed, the Eurohawk system has already undergone an earlier successful demonstration, with a USAF Block 10 airframe having been deployed to Germany's Nordholz air base in October 2003 with a prototype EADS mission package.
© Northrop Grumman
By using the new Block 20 airframe, Germany will be able to integrate its own package of surveillance equipment on a "plug-and-play" basis, without the need for adjustments to the air vehicle's flight-control system. This is among several factors which also make the latest production-standard Global Hawk attractive to other potential buyers, says Dane Marolt, Northrop's UAV business director for the Asia-Pacific region.
"The flight-control system is a tremendous advantage, because it's very hard to develop software," he says, describing the capability as the UAV's "crown jewels". Citing company software development activities that stretch back as far as the 1960s, Marolt says: "We treat Global Hawk as if it's a manned aircraft. We're trying to prove to the authorities that it's a safe aircraft, and we're doing it."
Offering an endurance of over 33h, the baseline RQ-4B has a 39.9m (131ft) wingspan and can carry a 1,360kg (3,000lb) payload at altitudes above 60,000ft. And with its open system architecture now in place, "Global Hawk is the truck", says Marolt.
Once completed later this year, the first Eurohawk air vehicle will undergo an extensive test campaign at the Palmdale site for around one year, before being flown to the USAF's Edwards AFB late next year for continued testing and certification activities.
A joint test team had previously been expected to launch integration and flight-test activities in Germany in late 2009, but the German and US governments recently agreed a six-month schedule slip to the programme. "EADS is making progress, but the risk is in the sensor and the integration," says Marolt.
EADS declines to comment on the status of its Eurohawk sensor development activities, citing customer sensitivity over the capabilities of its future SIGINT package.
After achieving certification in the USA, the Eurohawk will be transferred to EADS's Manching site near Munich in 2010 for sensor integration and system test, evaluation and flight testing work. A decision on procuring the remainder of the system, including its four air vehicles, is expected to be made during 2011, according to Northrop.
Although the Eurohawk will perform a radically different mission to that conducted by the USAF's Global Hawks, Marolt says: "The government-to-government agreement is that US and German aircraft must be able to interoperate."
Northrop is producing five Global Hawks a year for the air force, but could increase this to 12. "The USAF plan is for 54 aircraft, but studies say they will want more," according to Marolt.
An additional order for at least 68 RQ-4Ns is expected to come via the US Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance project, recently awarded to Northrop, but now the subject of an appeal by losing bidder Lockheed Martin, which had offered to supply General Atomics' Predator B-based Mariner.
Australia is also a partner on the BAMS project, and has shown substantial past interest in acquiring the Global Hawk for maritime surveillance tasks.
Northrop says the USAF has logged over 10,000 flight hours with the Global Hawk in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and claims a mission-effective rate for the type of 95%.
The company expects to soon close a deal to provide eight Block 40 Global Hawks to deliver NATO's delayed Alliance Ground Surveillance programme requirements. "Negotiations are going on right now," says Marolt, who expects a conclusion to be reached "within weeks".
But current restrictions under the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) mean unmanned systems such as the RQ-4 are classed in the same category as cruise missiles, limiting Northrop's ability to export the HALE UAV more widely, despite open interest displayed in the past from states including Japan and South Korea.
Northrop must also still convince some within the US Congress that it would be in Washington's best interests to see the Global Hawk operated beyond key allies such as Australia, Germany and NATO.
"Global Hawk, Predator A and [and General Atomics'] Reaper are tremendously effective systems," USAF deputy undersecretary for international affairs Bruce Lemkin told Flight International during last month's ILA air show in Berlin.
"We have other countries that are interested in or will be acquiring them. In some cases we're going to have to work out the policy aspects." Noting that "times have changed" since the treaty's creation, Lemkin said: "We have the ability within the context of the MTCR to do that transfer."