The Australian government has asked the Pentagon whether it can acquire as many as six of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance airplanes to help patrol its coastline--the first serious signal of international interest in the plane.
If the request is approved, it would bolster the Los Angeles-based defense contractor's efforts to capture the market for pilotless planes, which are gaining growing interest in the defense industry.
A Northrop official said the Australians sent a letter of request to the Pentagon on Monday outlining preliminary plans to purchase six Global Hawks and a ground control system at up to $250 million.
The ungainly aircraft with long, plank-like wings has been getting a lot of attention at the Paris Air Show, the world's largest exhibition of aircraft taking place this week at an airport just outside Paris.
The Los Angeles-based defense contractor shipped a full-size mock-up of the aircraft to the show and was placed at the head of the exhibit line, which included an F-18 fighter, a massive Antonov An-225 six-jet engine cargo plane and an Airbus 340 passenger plane.
Northrop and the Pentagon have been testing the super-sophisticated, high-altitude aircraft, which may one day replace the venerable but aging 1950s-era U-2 spy planes. The Global Hawk, which was developed in San Diego and is assembled in Palmdale, recently returned from Australia, where it showed off its capabilities, including shattering the endurance record by flying continuously for 29 hours.
"The Australian deployment paid off handsomely," said Northrop Chairman Kent Kresa, who was attending the show. "It adds a very exciting new dimension to our unmanned capabilities."
Several companies are developing unmanned aircraft, but the Global Hawk is considered the most sophisticated and furthest along.
During the 11-day test, the Global Hawk took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, flew across the Pacific Ocean and landed in Edinburgh, Australia--all by itself, using on-board computers that had been pre-programmed.
A ground station that also could control the aircraft kept track of its course. It flew back to California last week.
In Australia, the plane took part in 13 test missions including one in which it autonomously found a target and identified it as a 40-foot fishing vessel.
Based on its performance, the U.S. Air Force said it wants to eventually purchase 44 Global Hawks, which can fly at 65,000 feet for as long as 34 hours and take thousands of images that can distinguish between a baseball and an orange.
The program received another boost Tuesday when Northrop received $20.5 million from the Pentagon to begin low-rate production of the airplanes for the U.S. Air Force. Northrop has so far built seven for testing. And last week, a high-level Pentagon panel recommended purchasing additional Global Hawks, which it deemed a key component of transforming the U.S. military.
Separately, Northrop this week signed an agreement with EADS, a European defense contractor, to develop a European version of Global Hawk, which would be dubbed Euro Hawk.
And Northrop said it will fly a Global Hawk to Latin America next May under a counter-drug demonstration and is in talks to fly it to Berlin for next year's air show there. Paris Air Show organizers had hoped to have the aircraft fly here for a flight demonstration, but the move was blocked by the Pentagon.