The US Air Force's recent complaints that the RQ-4 Global Hawk is expensive and unreliable were "exaggerated"," say Northrop Grumman executives at the show.
The real problems with the programme, according to Ed Walby, director of business development for the high-altitude unmanned air vehicle, lie in "issues with controlling requirements" and overuse of the platform.
"Global Hawk suffers from a lot of masters," he says. "There are issues with controlling requirements and a lot of evolving requirements. Trying to capture all of those to satisfy all the customers becomes quite difficult."
High demand has increases some costs, he says. Combatant commanders have asked to fly the Global Hawk far more than contracted. "In one case, six times its required operational capacity," Walby says. Flying so much more than originally anticipated means more spare parts are required to keep the aircraft running and more operations and maintenance funds are spent.
The UAV is actually falling in cost and is very reliable, says Walby. In 2009, only two sorties were cancelled due to maintenance, he says, out of more than 250 scheduled missions.
At the same time, the US military buys the RQ-4 at the fairly low rate of about four a year. Northrop could build up to 12 a year, Walby says, and at a lower cost. "I like to say it's basically 'buy 10, get one free'," he says.
In June, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, and US Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition David van Buren separately told reporters they were not happy with the cost of the UAV and that testing has been slower than expected. "I am not happy with the pace of that programme and we are not happy with the cost of the air vehicle," van Buren said.
Meanwhile, air force and navy leaders have been working to increase the commonality between the Global Hawk fleet and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance programme. The focus has been on sharing systems and components in the ground systems for both fleets, as well as working out production efficiency with Northrop.