Northrop Grumman begins work on NATO drone fleet

U.S. defense giant Northrop Grumman is kicking off construction on a slew of new unmanned aircraft that will be the backbone for NATO's new drone fleet. 

Work on five RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones began at the company's facility in Moss Point, Miss., on Wednesday, according to recent news reports

The aircraft being built for NATO are the company's newest iteration of the Global Hawk drone, known as the Block 40 version. 

That variant is the same kind flown by the Air Force during aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions worldwide. 

However, the long-range and high-altitude drones being being built for the alliance  -- dubbed by company officials as the Eurohawk -- is modified for use by NATO forces. 

Once delivered to alliance commanders in NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Agency, the Eurohawks will be used strictly for surveillance operations and will not be armed. 

"Operations in Libya and Afghanistan and those over the waters off the coast of eastern Africa all prove that there's a crying need for this type of capability," NATO agency official Jim Edge said Wednesday. 

The NATO deal comes at a critical time for Northrop, who is looking toward international markets to offset the spending cuts at the Pentagon. 

Pentagon leaders slashed just over $1 billion total from its unmanned-weapons programs within the department's $45.4 billion request for all military aircraft spending in its fiscal 2014 spending budget.

Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon's unmanned-warfare director, told industry leaders in August that those cuts forecasted for fiscal 2014 were just the beginning.

"We will see [future] reductions" to unmanned-weapons portfolios, Weatherington said at an industry symposium on unmanned-vehicle systems in Washington that month. 

Those future cuts will hit Defense Department coffers hardest in the fiscal 2015 budget plan, which is currently being drafted inside the Pentagon, and over the next two to three budget cycles.

But outside of the U.S. military drone market, foreign forces in the Asia-Pacific region — namely South Korea, Japan and Australia — have emerged as lucrative markets for American unmanned-weapons tech. 

American allies are specifically looking for aerial drones -- like the Eurohawk and others -- that can fly surveillance missions for hours, and in some cases, days on end to cover the miles and miles of open ocean surrounding those countries.