By Andrea Shalal-Esa
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp on Monday said it expects expanded sales of its high-altitude unmanned Global Hawk aircraft, which passed 100,000 flight hours this month, with foreign countries including Canada, South Korea and Japan considering orders.
George Guerra, who oversees Global Hawk and other unmanned high-altitude, long endurance programs for Northrop, told Reuters the company was keeping its "nose to the grindstone" to drive down the production and operating costs of the aircraft.
He said the drone's ability to fly at 60,000 feet for 30 hours and carry a variety of different sensors made it unique among unmanned systems, and it continues to attract strong interest from a number of foreign countries.
Northrop developed the Global Hawk for the U.S. Air Force, and it has been used extensively for surveillance over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
"I stand by it. It is the most capable platform for high-altitude, long-endurance applications," Guerra told Reuters at the annual Air Force Association conference.
Guerra said the plane's ability to provide real-time data about natural disasters like the 2011 earthquake in Japan or forest fires in the western United States remained a key selling point internationally. The plane first flew in 1998.
NASA, using the initial technology demonstration aircraft, this week flew over two hurricanes as part of a broader project studying how tropical storms develop over the Atlantic Ocean.
Melting ice in the Arctic could be another area of concern that triggers additional sales, Guerra said, noting that the aircraft had flown over the region, providing data on ice conditions and other environmental observations.
Northrop's upbeat assessment came hours after acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning signaled that the Air Force would again seek to mothball the fleet of Block 30 Global Hawks in favor of its manned U2 spy planes despite new data showing that the cost per flight hour had declined by more than half since 2010. Lawmakers have so far rebuffed those efforts, but budget pressures are mounting.
Northrop also remains in negotiations with Germany about its stalled 1.2 billion euro purchase of four Euro Hawks, which Northrop developed with Europe's EADS based on the Global Hawk design. The plane has logged over 200 flight hours and just completed seven flights with various sensors.
Guerra said the company remained focused on working with both the U.S. and German systems to resolve any issues impeding additional sales.
Northrop is already under contract to build five Block 40 versions of the plane for NATO, and should complete a design review this year for those planes, Guerra said.
Guerra said he will travel to Japan next week to meet with officials there about a possible order of four aircraft, and Northrop officials are continuing to work with the U.S. government about a possible sale to South Korea.
Canada has also expressed interest in the Air Force version of the planes, while Norway and Australia have looked at the Navy version, called Triton, according to sources familiar with the program.
Singapore has also expressed interest, but may face a tougher climb getting approval by the U.S. government, they said.
Northrop has built over 40 of the aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, and lawmakers have urged the Air Force to finalize orders for three more of the Block 30 variant - a deal that could come later this year.
Potential foreign sales could add 20 or more orders in coming years, according to defense industry experts.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Jim Marshall)