On Tuesday, August 20, 2013, Tom Vice, Corporate Vice President and President of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, gave a briefing on unmanned systems at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Below are his remarks.

The Promise of Unmanned Systems

Thank you for being here to discuss the promise of Unmanned Systems.

This has been an exhilarating year for unmanned systems. In fact, each year is even more exciting than the last.

I want to share where we are with unmanned aircraft systems – where we hope to go – and how we intend to get there.

I want you to know how Northrop Grumman is positioned to remain the leader in this vital space.

Before I continue with unmanned systems, I want to highlight that this portfolio is an integral part of a larger family of capabilities in our company – capabilities in C4ISR, Cyber, Logistics, and Strike.

Today’s discussion will focus on the unmanned systems business of Northrop Grumman. The concepts of innovation, of performance, of affordability, of collaboration, and of leadership - are at the very heart of our business.

Of course, if I’m going to stand here and tell you we’re “the leader” in this space, I’m going to have to back it up.

Think about the evolutionary steps unmanned systems have taken over the past decade or so.

The 9/11 attacks pushed unmanned systems into rapid development.

They’ve played a key role in the subsequent war on terror.

But we have to go back much further than 2001 to truly appreciate the promise of these amazing systems.

Let's take a look at the "firsts" Northrop Grumman has achieved over the past decades. I’ll re-cap some of the things we’ve done and are in the process of working on. And I’ll look ahead.

It’s all to send this message: We embrace the promise of unmanned systems. As the industry leader, we continue to make – and keep – that promise with every new development.

In partnership with our customers, we recognized the promise of unmanned systems many years ago - and through hard work and innovation - we have been able to realize the promise of this new technology – the promise of affordability and new mission capability. In today’s environment, affordability takes on an even greater imperative. We’re focused on delivering on that promise as we develop, produce, and field the programs we have on contract.

And, we’re excited about the future of unmanned systems. At Northrop Grumman, we believe our best is yet to come. 
When you have a revolutionary new capability that is growing as quickly as unmanned systems are, not only in defense but potential commercial applications, there are challenges to overcome, solutions to be developed, and leadership that emerges.


That is the leadership of Northrop Grumman. And, we are focused on continuing that legacy into the future.


It’s a concept we learn early, and it’s something strong companies – companies that lead – understand instinctively. It’s embraced.  It’s championed. It’s in Northrop Grumman’s DNA.

Promise – looks ahead and is optimistic. It’s applying decades of technological leadership to future customer problems and challenges.

Promise – is performing on missions so well, for so long, that we help our customers redefine the very concept of missions.

Promise – is having delivered more than 100,000 systems from the earliest Radioplanes to the X-47B UCAS-D.

It’s building a fully autonomous aircraft that can fly at 60,000 feet and stay on station for more than a day – absent the limitations of the human body and, in doing so, changing what is possible.

It’s successfully flying a fully autonomous aircraft off a pitching, rolling aircraft carrier – making possible what, since the dawn of flight, has been thought impossible.

So, when you leave here today, I hope you’ll clearly understand our heritage of leadership in this space – and the optimism we have for the future – and the fact it’s based on something real.

To us, the promise is achieved through excellence. And excellence has five pillars.

  • Innovation;
  • Performance;
  • Affordability;
  • Collaboration; and
  • Leadership.

The discussion about achieving excellence in unmanned systems starts with the first pillar – innovation.

I wouldn’t be here talking with you today without decades of big, bold thinking behind us and decades of advancements ahead.

Imagine the excitement of the first aircraft flight off a carrier in 1915.

Now consider that it took 98 years to get to this next level, represented by the achievements of the X-47B UCAS-D – a huge step into the future of naval aviation. Unmanned systems are much more than just an airplane or a vehicle. These systems require sensors, communications, ground-control systems, and intelligence-exploitation systems.

So, let me address the promises realized. Those innovative "firsts." The revolutionary capabilities our customers and our company developed that proved the value of unmanned systems. We are very proud, and honored, to have had the opportunity to develop – with our customers – a sizeable number of new innovations in this field:

  • We were the first company to develop and field unmanned systems used in combat on a large scale. The Firebee aerial target was converted to an unmanned combat system that flew almost 3,500 sorties from 1964 to 1975.
  • We were the first to build and test an unmanned system capable of delivering ordnance – the multi-mission BQM-34C.
  • We were the first company to build and test a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned prototype. That happened in 1974, with the Compass Cope – which set an endurance record of 28 hours, 11 minutes.
  • We developed, produced, and delivered the first unmanned autonomous reconnaissance system for an international customer. It was the Scarab, a system that also represented the first international sale of a UAS that hadn’t first been part of the U.S. military inventory.  
  • We were the first to build both a prototype and then an operational unmanned system with more than 30 hours of endurance – and the ability to fly at altitudes greater than 60,000 feet and a range of 10,000 nautical miles.
  • And it was the first unmanned system able to operate from airfields using autonomous flight controls. In 1994, that system was called Tier II Plus. Today it’s known as Global Hawk.

This was the moment that changed this industry.

Within 5 years of our winning the contract with DARPA, Global Hawk became the first UAS to fly across the Atlantic and return home on single mission - all autonomously. Two months after 9/11, two Global Hawks were deployed to theatre to support the war. Over the next several years, the development on the Global Hawk Block 10, 20, 30 and 40 variants would begin.

The system proved to be valuable in combat operations as well as humanitarian support – including operations over Haiti, following the earthquake – and over Japan, assisting in relief efforts after the tsunami.

The U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance demonstration program provided high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance over blue-water and coastal maritime environments.

The lessons learned through the BAMS-D program are being applied to MQ-4C Triton, which achieved first flight earlier this summer.

We were the first to develop and field a fully-autonomous rotary-winged system that could operate from a ship - the Fire Scout.

Our Firebird system was the first optionally manned and autonomous unmanned system. It was also the first truly open plug-and-play architecture that allowed for the rapid insertion of new sensors.

The X-47B was the first UAS to successfully catapult off of an aircraft carrier. A few weeks later, it was the first to make an arrested landing aboard a carrier.

These accomplishments have gained attention around the world. Take a look at the Navy’s YouTube video of the first catapult launch of the X-47B on the USS Bush. It’s earned more than a million views.

And, the program had what may be another first - the use of additive manufacturing, or “3-D printing” – of a metal part used in the flight vehicle.

Another area where we continue to lead in innovation is in the reliability of our Vehicle Management Systems - and the sophistication and maturity of our contingency-management system.

Our activity in this area is beyond the research phase.

In addition to our strong heritage in fly-by-wire flight controls, we are the industry leader in fielding mature contingency-management systems across our UAS portfolio.

And our research efforts on autonomy include cooperative engagements across a family of systems. Mission scenarios that pair - unmanned systems with other unmanned systems - or unmanned with manned.

We are making great progress in the development of a common mission management system that has the ability to control multiple types of UAS systems.

All these “firsts” make the rest of the discussion possible.

Of course, innovations must perform – our second pillar of excellence.

Not just solid performance, but ground-breaking performance. This is what leads to the most basic element of a successful enterprise - satisfied customers.

The very fact we’ve led this market for decades speaks to Northrop Grumman’s unique ability to take the creativity of our amazing, talented people and turn their dreams into things that work.

Today our High-Altitude, Long-Endurance systems can deliver unsurpassed ISR in any situation – day or night – in any weather. In one scan, the Global Hawk Block 40 can see everything moving in an area equal to the distance from here to New York City, while providing target locations within the width of a single street.

Our promise of performance extends across all our platforms.

We recognize our customers face challenges. And if we’re not finding ways to innovate and perform affordably, we’re not fulfilling our promise to them.

So, affordability is a crucial component of our approach. That's our third pillar.

Bottom line – we must meet our customers’ cost commitments at a most basic level. We remain focused on affordability across the spectrum of our programs.

On Global Hawk - driving a lower cost per flight hour. And more flexibility though our innovative universal payload adapter - to carry other existing Air Force sensors when operations call for it.

Another example of our re-thinking affordability is the Centers of Excellence initiative we announced in March. Northrop Grumman designated five centers of excellence, across the country. We did this to better align with our customers, and continue to drive affordability into our operations.

San Diego is home to our unmanned systems center of excellence.

We understand that affordability is something that’s achieved every day, in every decision we make. So, it’s part of our Global Supply Chain organization. It’s in the culture of our operations.

It’s physically built into our products, making them more reliable and sustainable over the long term.

The traits I’ve mentioned so far – innovation, performance, and affordability – are traits we share with our customers and our suppliers.

At every step along the development chain – from the spark of an idea to successful delivery and beyond – we’ve collaborated to ensure the best minds are focused on the issues at hand. And looking out 10 or 20 years or more – to address challenges that perhaps someone hasn’t thought of. It’s this team-based, collaborative approach to development that forms a critical part of the promise we speak of today.

All these elements add up to leadership – the final pillar in our approach to excellence.

What I’ve said here today, our heritage of innovation – our performance, the way we strive for affordability, and the collaborative approach we take to developing our systems – all support the fact that Northrop Grumman leads this marketplace. We define the market and create solutions for the mission. And we reach to do things no one’s done before.

One thing a leader does is acknowledge, tackle, and learn from challenges.

Let me be clear. The systems we make are complicated.

To be able to stand here and claim leadership is to also point out that leaders don’t just come up with great products. They face challenges others don’t. Breaking ground is a hard thing to do. Things usually haven’t been done before for a reason. Challenges like airworthiness. It’s not an issue we’re just looking at ourselves. It’s something that industry and government are addressing.

It’s in the interest of technological advancement and discovery and practical progress, that we work to develop public policies and procedures to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national civil air space.

One way to do this is to establish UAS test sites to enable certification for future commercial and civil use. We recognize the hard work the FAA has embarked on. It’s reasonable, it’s responsible, and it warrants careful consideration by government leaders and industry.

That is the future of unmanned systems. I firmly believe this issue will be academic someday soon. We’ll get there.

While we’re looking ahead, let’s talk about where the industry is going. The Teal Group estimates that the annual global spending on UAVs will double over the next 10 years. Although I will not disclose our future systems – our competitors would love to read about that – I can say this:

  • The future will bring unmanned systems that refuel other unmanned systems, and possibly manned systems. 
  • Very long endurance systems at extreme altitudes. 
  • Greater cooperative engagements – teaming and swarming technologies. 
  • Supersonic unmanned systems – with 25g capability potentially used as sentinels for manned air dominance aircraft. 
  • Advanced autonomous underwater systems, and next-generation ground systems. Maybe it starts with ground cargo transportation, and then moves into combat vehicles. 

Commercial applications are not far behind. Monitoring and long-haul cargo are just a couple of the areas.

The technology is redefining affordable, innovative, new missions. That will continue, as will the promise of unmanned systems, taking on new forms in ways we can’t even imagine today.

But we’re working at it. 

From the start, Northrop Grumman has kept its own promise – to refine and strengthen our position by investing in people, our business, and technology.

I hope I’ve painted a picture today of an innovative company with an impressive heritage – dreaming and doing amazing things – with the mindset of entrepreneurs.

I hope I’ve conveyed to you what we at Northrop Grumman see as the future of unmanned systems and how that optimistic future – and our place in it – is rooted in our past and present successes, and how this heritage of achievement uniquely positions us to continue to lead the industry.

As we continue to innovate, perform, lead, and collaborate, the promise will keep expanding. And, just as surely as the promise lies just beyond the horizon, Northrop Grumman will continue to dream, to strive, and to achieve.