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Northrop Grumman wins contract to turn unmanned spy plane into refueling tanker

Northrop Grumman Corp. has been awarded a $33-million Pentagon contract to transform its unmanned, long-range spy plane into a roving robotic aerial refueling tanker.

The plane, dubbed the Global Hawk, is used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military. Northrop plans to retrofit the plane so it can carry 1,000 gallons of jet fuel in its fuselage and demonstrate it can autonomously refuel another Global Hawk in midair by next year.

“This technology has the potential to be revolutionary,” said Mark Gamache, director of Northrop’s advanced concepts and technology division. “It will allow our military to do more and longer missions without the worry of human limitations.”

The contract, awarded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, came as the Air Force has been attempting to replace its aging fleet of Eisenhower-era aircraft used to refuel U.S. fighter jets and bombers in mid-flight.

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But the effort has been mired in controversy and numerous delays. In March, Northrop pulled out of the $40-billion competition and left its partner, Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., to go at it alone against Boeing Co. Both have proposed modifying passenger jets into aerial tankers.

Although Northrop is not competing for the contract, turning the robotic Global Hawk into a tanker could be a sign of what’s to come, analysts said.

“We’re still a long way from unmanned aircraft refueling bombers,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant in Issaquah, Wash. “But I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go into service in 10 or more years.”

But what happens in the future largely depends on how the Global Hawk performs, said Phil Finnegan, an analyst with aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp.

“This is just the first step,” he said. “They’ll start off refueling other unmanned aircraft before moving on to manned. It’ll take time to develop the technology and build up confidence.”

Because it has no pilots on board, the Global Hawk can fly for up to 30 hours without coming down, Gamache said. He has visions of unmanned aircraft ultimately acting as floating gas stations, filling up both manned and unmanned planes.

Using unmanned aircraft has other advantages, Gamache said. An unmanned plane can be flown over heavily defended areas without the potential for human losses.

But questions have been raised about an unmanned plane’s ability to carry out complicated tasks, such as hauling thousands of gallons of fuel and linking mid-flight to another moving plane traveling at hundreds of miles per hour.

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Such a complicated task has long been thought to need a human touch, said Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book that examines robotic warfare.

“There have been many military officers who have said aerial refueling is one of those areas that won’t be turned over to robotics,” Singer said. “Well, here we are.”

The Global Hawk will be retrofitted in a partnership with NASA, which operates Global Hawks for environmental studies out of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The engineering work will be done at Northrop’s facilities in Rancho Bernardo.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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