The Air Force has declared the latest block of RQ-4B Global Hawk drones, with which Pentagon testers found shortcomings in May, has reached the key development milestone of initial operational capability (IOC).

Bill Walker, business development manager for Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Global Hawk program, told reporters yesterday he expects all nine aircraft shortcomings flagged by Pentagon testers during initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) to be resolved by the end of this year.

IOC normally is declared on a developmental weapon program when it has completed IOT&E and it is ready to enter production. However, the Air Force produced and deployed the Block 30 Global Hawks ahead of IOC earlier this year.  

After that, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, said in a May report on the IOT&E that the Block 30 aircraft was “not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for which it was designed. Gilmore’s operational test and evaluation report identified nine air vehicle critical components that failed most frequently (Defense Daily, June 7).

Walker said Northrop Grumman recognized the nine issues identified during IOT&E–which was conducted from last October through December–even before that testing began.

“We completed the development and the final solution, if you will, to six of those,” Walker said yesterday at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International North America 2011 conference in Washington. “And most of them are in the status of being fielded. The other three should be finished before the end of the year.”

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command allowed the Block 30 Global Hawks to enter IOC last week, he said.

The Block 30 Global Hawks have been used in Central Command operations, Libya, and Japan.

The nine aircraft stationed abroad have an enhanced-integrated-sensor suite (EISS) developed by Raytheon [RTN]. Northrop Grumman plans to reconfigure those Block 30 Global Hawks with its own Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP) so they can perform a multi-intelligence role.

Walker said the first Global Hawk with the ASIP should be delivered within the next month. The ASIP payload is used on the legacy U-2 reconnaissance airplanes.

Walker said Northrop Grumman is working with the Air Force to drive down the cost of the Global Hawk, which had a cost breach earlier this year that forced the Pentagon to recertify it to Congress in line with the Nunn-McCurdy statute. In a June 14 acquisition decision memorandum, the Pentagon reduced the planned buy of the Block 30 aircraft.

The Nunn-McCurdy cost breach was partly attributed to a reduction in the number of aircraft being purchased. Still, Walker said before the cost overrun was announced his company was working “to improve the affordability and reduce the cost, not only in production but also in sustainment.”

Walker declined to share yesterday specific information on the affordability initiatives, which he said will be discussed during a gathering of Pentagon and industry officials about Global Hawk affordability that will be held later this month.

“We have conducted with all of our partners (including product providers and subcontractors)…initial lean events with them trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of the piece that they’re providing,” he said. “Within our own company, with all the different processes, we’ve gone through…what we call (lean events), trying to figure out what have we learned over the last few years of production, and…what isn’t absolutely necessary. What waivers can we ask for based on the fact that we don’t need that part of the different processes? So we’re addressing it from A to Z and you’ll see some really good examples at that event.”