The U.S. Navy has extended by one year the time its first high-altitude drone will monitor oil shipments and other maritime activity in the Persian Gulf region, according to officials.
Northrop Grumman Corp. built the plane, a demonstration version of its Global Hawk that's used by the Air Force, as the first model in a $9 billion Navy program for 68 unmanned planes to provide reconnaissance in five areas of the world.
The aircraft has been flying over the Gulf region since February 2009 and was slated to end its patrols this year to undergo additional stateside testing and development. The U.S. 5th Fleet has asked the stint be extended.
The drone "has significantly improved maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" in the region, 5th Fleet spokeswoman Commander Amy Derrick-Frost said in a July 12 e-mail.
The Gulf is a source of constant tension. Almost a quarter of the world's oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a 33- mile-wide waterway at its mouth between Iran and Oman. The Navy drone is part of an international task force that includes aircraft of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.
The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance drone "has become a critical piece in maintaining around-the-clock awareness," Derrick-Frost said. "Both the U.S. Central Command and Navy supported our request to extend" the patrols.
The drone has been working in tandem with manned P-3 and EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft to gather images and intelligence, she said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pressed the military to make greater use of drones. The Pentagon's aviation plan calls for increasing by 2020 the number of high-altitude drones like the new one from Northrop to more than 800 from 220 today.
The Navy and Air Force on July 1 signed an agreement to maximize their use of common equipment, base locations and training used for both the Global Hawk and BAM-S programs.
Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, which has a defensive systems division in Rolling Meadows, in 2008 beat out Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Maryland, for a $1.8 billion contract to develop and build the first two demonstration aircraft in the Navy program. Northrop will also build three more advanced models.
The Navy in 2013 will seek Pentagon permission to begin building the remaining 63 aircraft, Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove said in an e-mail.