WASHINGTON — In a surprising reversal, Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft is now seen as having a strong shot at avoiding the Pentagon’s ax when President Barack Obama sends his proposed fiscal 2015 budget to Congress in March, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Air Force said in 2012 that it reluctantly favored scrapping the Global Hawk, one of whose production facilities is just outside Biloxi, Miss., in favor of Lockheed Martin’s U-2 spy plane.
But increasing demands for drones to help the service fulfill its high-altitude surveillance mission may have swung things in the opposite direction.
Renee Freeland, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman, declined to confirm the development, first reported by Aviation Week and confirmed by Defense News.
However, she said in a statement: “We look forward to continued operations in the foreseeable future.”
“Global Hawk has the safest record of any fighter, bomber or reconnaissance aircraft in the Air Force’s active inventory and provides the most cost-effective and efficient means of gathering high-altitude long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information over a wide geographic area,” Freeland said.
An Air Force spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports, and Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said: “We’re not going to discuss any pre-decisional budget information.”
A person familiar with the matter, who lacked authorization to speak for the record, said that word has circulated that the administration had shifted directions and that funding is likely to remain intact at least for the Global Hawk Block 30, the aircraft’s third generation.
“The Air Force didn’t want to fund it,” this person said, but noted that there aren’t many U-2s or Global Hawks, of which 39 have been delivered, and the Air Force is facing increasing demands for surveillance of activities on the ground.
Among those demands are the need to track the resurgence of groups affiliated with al Qaida in Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing hunt for al Qaida leaders in northeastern Pakistan and movements by Taliban in Afghanistan.
Global Hawks, which can operate anywhere on the planet at altitudes of 11 miles and higher, also aid humanitarian, scientific and environmental causes. They have supported military operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
If the reports prove accurate, it won’t mean a major economic boon to Mississippi.
Northrop Grumman’s plant in Moss Point, outside Biloxi, employs 26 people. The plant’s sole Mississippi supplier is Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. in Columbus.
The Global Hawk is on its fourth generation. Seven Global Block 10s were retired in fiscal 2011. Half a dozen Block 20s were built, but the Global Hawk gained traction when 17 Block 30s were delivered. Nine of the latest-generation Block 40s, some of which are now being used in Afghanistan, have been put into service since Oct. 1.
The U-2, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is a one-seat, single-engine, high-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft first used in late 1950s.
It was recognized in 1998 with the Collier Trophy, an award for outstanding aeronautical achievement.
On its website, Lockheed states that “the nation will continue to rely on the U-2 for dependable, accurate and time-sensitive ISR information for years to come.”
A Lockheed Martin spokesperson did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.