By Graham Warwick in Washington DC

Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle programme has been restructured after a critical review triggered by soaring unit costs. The overhaul leaves intact the number of air vehicles planned for the US Air Force, but holds down the production rate until operational testing is completed.

Another troubled Northrop programme, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), also has survived a similar review, but with the number of spacecraft cut from six to four and only the first two approved for production. Both restructurings were triggered when unit costs rose by more than 25%, forcing the US Department of Defense to certify to Congress that the programmes should continue (Flight International, 18-24 April).

Defending its decision to continue with the Global Hawk despite total programme cost increasing almost 20% to $7.8 billion, the USAF says the UAV is “the theatre-level centrepiece for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”. Instead of increasing to six from fiscal year 2007, procurement will be held at five a year until after initial operational testing, which is scheduled to start at the end of 2008. But the USAF is to study increasing production to nine a year once testing is complete.

The number of USAF Global Hawks planned remains unchanged at 54 air vehicles, including six basic Block 20 versions of the larger RQ-4B – the first of which is to fly by the end of November – 26 Block 30s with additional ASIP signals-intelligence payload and 15 Block 40s with Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Programme active-array radar payload.

Restructuring of NPOESS – a joint DoD and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration effort to field the next generation of civil/military weather satellites – is more dramatic. Delayed by technical challenges with two of its 13 sensors, the cost of NPOESS had rocketed almost 70% to $13.8 billion for six polar-orbiting satellites. Two have been cut and only the first two development satellites given the go-ahead, with approval for the remaining two dependent on their success.

This reduces NPEOSS to a two-orbit rather than three-orbit programme that uses data from European weather satellites for the mid-morning orbit. Additionally, the DoD has terminated Boeing’s $350 million contract for the conical scanning microwave imager/sounder, which had suffered weight and cost growth, and will recompete a smaller, less-capable microwave imager for the second satellite onwards.

Source: Flight International