Northrop Bullish on Building Navy Drone Fleet


Northrop Grumman Corp. is pursuing a contract to build a fleet of stealthy, carrier-based drones for the U.S. Navy while it explores commercial uses for the technology, a vice president said.

The successful landing last month of an experimental drone aboard the deck of an aircraft carrier was one of the Falls Church, Va.-based company’s many firsts in the history of unmanned aviation, according to Thomas Vice, a corporate vice president and president of Northrop’s aerospace systems unit.

“Because of our learning and our experience and investments we have made in this technology, we are very focused on competing and winning the UCLASS program,” he said during a news conference today at the National Press Club, referring to the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike effort to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

As the U.S. and other countries take steps to let unmanned systems fly in domestic airspace, Northrop is also considering expanding its drone business to include commercial work, from transporting cargo over long distances to mapping ice flows in the Arctic for energy companies, Vice said.

The technology “is an area where we see tremendous market growth, domestically and internationally,” he said. “It represents a significant part of our company’s revenue.”

Northrop in 2012 had $25 billion in revenue, a 4.5 percent decline from the previous year. The company’s aerospace systems unit, which includes unmanned, space and missile systems, accounted for $10 billion, or 40 percent, of total sales, which was flat from the prior year.

Northrop built two experimental drones, called X-47B, for the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator program, known in military parlance as UCAS-D, which cost $1.4 billion over eight years.

One of the bat-winged aircraft on July 10 landed aboard the USS George H.W. Bush while the ship was sailing in the Atlantic Ocean, about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va.

Vice didn’t clearly explain why the other plane was unable to perform the same feat in a later test.

“There’s not an inherent difference that one is old technology and one is new,” he said. “It’s just how … we positioned these two to create and accomplish a number of tests.”

Northrop, which also builds the Air Force’s Global Hawk drone — the largest unmanned aircraft in the fleet — is squaring off against other defense giants for the Navy’s UCLASS program, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

The Navy recently awarded each of the companies a $15 million contract to develop designs for the program. The service plans to hold a competition in 2014 and pick a winner by the end of next year to begin developing the systems.

Vice didn’t say how automatic budget cuts may affect the effort. The reductions, known as sequestration, will slice about $52 billion from the defense budget in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1 — and $500 billion over the next decade — unless the White House and Congress come up with an alternate plan.

“My crystal ball isn’t any better than yours,” he said. “We all realize the great focus our customer has on affordability, the budget constraints our nation has.”

Regardless, Vice said Northrop continues to invest in research and development of unmanned systems, including technology to sense and avoid other aircraft in the sky. The company also supports the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to come up with rules to integrate drones into federal airspace by 2015 and sees potential for more commercial business, he said.

“Other corporations that may be doing things in the Arctic probably have a need for surveillance,” he said. “The business model, I think, is still shaping up.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    “Other corporations that may be doing things in the Arctic probably have a need for surveillance”

    Why yes, perhaps Northrop will sell you some GCS and support contracts. Probably more money than the drones themselves.

  • hibeam

    Will these drones pass out when they pull more than 9 Gs? Otherwise how will the Chinese compete?

  • Big-Dean

    I have a great idea, let’s have Lockhead build the drone fleet for the Navy

    It’ll only cost us 2 billion a piece and we’ll have them in 20 years, and they won’t be able to land on carriers but they’ll be
    able to do anything else, including making a fine martini (but they will “borrow” the technology for this from the LCS martini module program) ;-P

  • Captain Obvious

    Drones still have some progress that need to be made in a denial environment of any kind.

  • octopusmagnificens

    F-35 will be obsolete in a decade. Drones are the future.

    • William_C1

      If the future means never operating in any sort of environment with a lot of hostile jamming and electronic-warfare going on. You need manned aircraft to work in conjunction with the unmanned if you’re looking to fight a first rate power.

      • Trons Away

        While I do not disagree with your last statement, if you consider the UCLASS a long range, air-refuelable, multiple DMPI, carrier-recoverable, LO Tomahawk, then it becomes extremely valuable in an EM-denied high threat environment.

      • octopusmagnificens

        I think unmanned aircraft will do all that in the near future.

        • Belesari

          Drones use electronic sensors…..if those can’t work the drone is blind and deaf…….worthless.

          So that means Both the F-35 and Drones will have to fly home and the F-18’s and A-10’s will be free to break shit.

          • Trons Away

            F-18s and A-10s use electronic and optical sensors, and RF Links to communicate with JTACs and other aircraft. Great jets in a medium to low threat IADS, and what I want in a CAS stack - and an AC-130.

            However, the Hog will be dead 10 minutes before it’s close enough to kill an S-300. Different tools for different jobs.

          • fanboy

            all modern manned jets rely on those same electronic sensors. eye sight is pretty much useless in bad weather or at night

            and without long range sensors, the F-18, A-10, F-35… will get hammered in dogfights against Sukhoi’s half their cost. a UCAV can risk running the enemy defences thanks to it’s expendability and stealth, and bomb targets using GPS, cruise missile style

      • Bernard

        Jamming will become irrelevant when drones gain more autonomy. They will simply be pre-programmed with targets and ROE and if coms fail they’ll execute those orders without input. Regardless, manned aircraft need coms too.

    • fanboy

      cheap, stealthy, long range, decent payload, carrier compatible, flies itself… how could that possibly be the future? ;)

  • hibeam

    Its hard for humans to get used to the idea that we can build machines smarter than we are. Get used to it. It will only get much worse very rapidly. -Cyborg hibeam

    • Bernard
    • Bernard
    • Bernard
      • IknowIT

        Also consider the speed with which the autonomous capability can be improved- it’s a software download, not training a new pilot.. Autonomous drones will be here faster than you think, and they will probably be better than manned systems very rapidly..

  • hunter76

    I am fearful when I think of a UAV procurement system that tries to emulate the current paradigm of huge projects with constantly changing parameters and winners.

    We need re-dialable uav airframes to run different missions. We could piece this out to local industry for different interpretations. Little uavs produced in the thousands in the back country of Suburbia.

    Who would win a war of men, China or US?

  • Captain Obvious

    How can a UAV declare something hostile in an environment where we can’t communicate with it?

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      ED 209 style: “Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply” - [16 seconds later] “Four… three… two… one… I am now authorized to use physical force!”

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

    • Bernard

      It will need to be sophisticated enough to positively ID pre-selected targets on it’s own. ID’ing hostile behavior will be more challenging and will need to be proven in combat to be trusted.

      • ajspades

        Considering most ROE are setup as if-then rules, it would be fairly easy to program a computer those rules.

        If identified aircraft
        - Is flying in no fly zone
        - Does not respond with correct IFF code
        - Matches pre-defined enemy aircraft configuration
        - Does not respond to cease-desist-retreat notifications
        - Aircraft considered viable target for lethal actions
        - Run BFM.exe program
        End of Line.

        • IknowIT

        • Bernard

          Real world scenarios are quite a bit more complex. For one, those if else rules don’t account for legitimate reasons for not responding.

          • blight_

            That’s why in the real world, even with an ROE innocents can die.

            It’s like the car speeding towards the checkpoint. Maybe the guy driving can’t read English, or is texting. But your ROE says to fire…so you destroy the car, no questions asked.

            Too loose an ROE: you may lose a few guys. Too aggressive an ROE: you kill more locals, you lose in the long run.

    • top dog

      Drones don’t fly themselves… last not yet anyway.

      • Bernard

        Read the article, this drone flies itself just fine. All the operator does is click a mouse and it flies itself there. Plenty of drones in service have autopilot.

  • Jeff

    Iran may have winged shape drones as well. May have copied the captured RQ-170. See them on Google Earth here:!topic/ge…

  • Jeff

    Are these images of RQ-170 or other drones on Google Earth:!topic/ge…

  • Rob C.

    Progress in Technology, General Need for defense contractors having steady source of income, and politics of not wanting risk “our boys” in line of duty will all factor in Unmanned aircraft replacing people on the most part.

    I hope not, there tele-operating or working on their own isn’t something i’d like to see. It will make it far to easy to goto war and not have to think of it and we’ll have far less skilled people to do it in the long run. Technology can be dupped, and doesn’t have common sense.

  • Michael L. Wallace Jr.

    if Nikola Tesla Devices gather electricity from earths rotation then incorporate this tech into drones for more air time. Personally I believe the first pigeon blood ruby laser was actually a death ray & if recreated using magnified sunlight would make great ammo for drone weapons of war.