The US Air Force plans to award Northrop Grumman contracts valued at $4 billion to sustain and modernize the RQ-4 Global Hawk over the next five years as the high-flying unmanned aircraft emerges from the shadow of potential retirement into a normalised defence programme.

The awards would follow a protracted debate in Washington over whether the spying variant of the RQ-4 should be retired in favor of the manned alternative – Lockheed Martin’s U-2 Dragon Lady – which saw Northrop’s Global Hawk Block 30 programme dropped from the air force’s budget plan for fiscal 2013.

Now, with funding restored and milestone C approval from the Pentagon, the programme office based in Ohio wants to put the Global Hawk’s tumultuous acquisition history behind it and move the unmanned spy plane purchase into the operations and support phase, with just three more Block 30s left to deliver.

The contracts, including modifications to existing efforts, are to be awarded sole-source to Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation in San Diego, California, are worth $4 billion in total and cover fiscal years 2016 to 2020. The deals are foreshadowed in a May 8 justification and approval document published on the US government’s contracting website, which notes that it would take about four years and $300 million to $500 million to qualify another company to assume the prime contractor role form Northrop.

According to the notice, the positive milestone C decision by the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive in February puts the Global Hawk programme back on firm footing after years of uncertainty and significant cost breaches. It also allows the programme office to move ahead with new modifications efforts, like improvements to the ground control system and communications upgrades.

Other planned improvements include an anti-icing system for the air vehicle’s wings and v-tail, the installation of a weather radar, and engine enhancements – allowing the aircraft to push through bad weather conditions to the target area, which is particularly important in the Pacific region. The air force also wants to modify the aircraft to carry different payloads like the U-2’s MS-177, optical bar camera and senior year electro-optical reconnaissance system.

Global Hawk U-2 - USAF

But according to the notice, the sole-source nature of the contracts does not relieve the air force of its “ongoing responsibility to actively assess and pursue competition”. Instead, the air force must reevaluate the “competitive environment” prior to any contract actions with Northrop in fiscal 2019 and 2020.

Northrop’s director of global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems John VanBrabant told Flightglobal last week that normalising the program with the milestone C decision signals to other Global Hawk customers that the air force is fully committed to the programme. “It sends a very positive signal,” he says.

“The airplane and system is lobbying for itself,” he says. “Just the facts are saying to the air force that this is a worthwhile program to maintain and continue to invest in. And, it sends a signal to the appropriators and the armed service committees [in Congress] that this is a reliable system doing good things for the air force.”

The Global Hawk started life as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency technology demonstration effort in 1995 and transferred to the air force in 1998. The original manufacturer was Teledyne Ryan, bought by Northrop in 1999.

The UAV entered development in 2001, and the aircraft were quickly fielded to support combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq despite well-documented design flaws.

The Block 30 programme was dropped from the fiscal 2013 budget proposal in February 2012 due to cost and capability concerns, but the air force chief of staff ordered that the aircraft keep flying.

Congress then blocked any retirement actions in defense policy legislation. Funding was fully restored in fiscal 2015, and now the U-2 will be retired instead starting in 2019.