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Defense to cut ties with spy planes

Posted: January 27, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 27, 2012 1:30 a.m.

The Pentagon is discontinuing plans for a long-range, unmanned surveillance airplane used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, officials announced Thursday.

The Global Hawk drone aircraft is assembled at a Palmdale plant, and seven Santa Clarita Valley firms that serve as suppliers are affected by the change in plans.

Northrop Grumman issued a statement Thursday confirming the Pentagon’s decision to cancel the Global Hawk Block 30 program. The U.S. Air Force will continue operating the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which were scheduled to begin retiring in 2015.

The U-2 spy plane has a shorter range, while the Global Hawk can remain airborne for 24 hours, according to AP reports.

While the Air Force Block 30 version is being cut, the Navy’s variant, the Global Hawk Block 40, could be used, officials said Thursday. The Block 40 has maritime applications, sources said.

Officials with the defense and aerospace giant said they were disappointed with the decision, and that they plan to work with the Defense Department to assess alternatives to program termination.

The Pentagon published a memorandum a few months back regarding Global Hawk Block 30, which stated: “The continuation of the program is essential to the national security. … There are no alternatives to the program which will provide acceptable capability to meet the joint military requirement at less cost,” according to Northrop Grumman officials.

Locally, Defense Department subcontractors Wesco Aircraft, PRC Desoto, Kirkhill-TA, Western Filter, Crater Industries, Whitmor/Wirenetics and Vista Controls, a division of Curtiss-Wright, are affected by the decision. None of the companies was available for comment.

On a list of suppliers posted by Northrop Grumman, California companies represented 48 percent of the 249 suppliers involved in the program.

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that oversees the military’s budget, said it would be premature to comment on the future of the program until there is further confirmation.

“Unfortunately, at this time, there is a lot of conflicting information out there as to the future of the program, and the Air Force is not providing clarification,” said Alissa McCurley, communications director for McKeon.

The Global Hawk provides lengthy surveillance, collects information using multiple sensors on the platform and eliminates any risks to pilots, as the aircraft is unmanned.

Pentagon tests revealed problems with the aircraft, which were reported in a N.Y Times story last August. Those tests hinted the “new Air Force model was not reliable enough,” and there were problems with parts failing and a weakness in the aircraft’s ability to  pinpoint the source of phone and radio calls being intercepted, according to the report.

Preserving the U-2 aircraft, however, first introduced in the 1950s, requires additional investments to continue that program, Northrop noted in its statement to the press.

“We (Northrop Grumman) are pleased with the continuing support for the Global Hawk Block 40 system, as well as for the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system and our other unmanned systems,” the company stated in its press release.


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