Northrop Grumman announced in early October that it has a new deal with the United States Air Force to provide services related to the Global Hawk drone program that could have a long lasting financial impact on the region.

The deal, called a “shell contract” and named EPIC II, is a vehicle whereby the U.S. Air Force will provide future orders to Northrop Grumman and could be worth as much as $4.8 billion. This deal carries on from the appropriately named EPIC I, which is set to expire in 2021. EPIC II could potentially see the company through 2030.

Northrop’s participation in this deal could have long lasting effects in the region, not only for the company itself, but for Grand Forks Air Force Base, UND and Northland Community and Technical College as well.

“It allows us to maintain our workforce,” said John Salafia, the deputy program director for the Global Hawk program at Northrop Grumman. “It allows us to hire new people in the future and indicate to them there is going to be work to do, so joining Northrop Grumman is a great thing to do.”

Salafia was quick to mention that, though the EPIC II deal is in place, there have not been any specific contracts inked as of yet. The “shell contract” nature of the deal means that future contracts will be forthcoming, allowing Northrop to continue its work on the Global Hawk program with confidence.

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According to Salafia, EPIC II shows that the U.S Air Force is committed to the Global Hawk technology.

“As far as Grand Forks, North Dakota and the Air Force there, I think it means that the 319 Reconniasance Wing has a solid future and will continue to provide the services it is providing today," he said.

The potential ripple effect of the deal could also be felt by educational facilities in the region, in particular UND and NCTC, as Northrop, at its Grand Sky location west of Grand Forks, will need skilled employees in the future.

“The relationship we have with them has been very fruitful in getting the caliber of knowledgeable, enthusiastic early-career folks out there doing some amazing work,” Salafia said.

The Global Hawk drone program began around 20 years ago, but, after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11, became a priority for the Air Force, according to Salafia. The large drones are capable of more than 30 hours of flight time and provide Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance operations for the Air Force. At any given time around the globe, three to four Global Hawks are carrying out missions.

Global Hawks function in different configurations, said Salafia. One is a wide area search configuration to find and track troop movements on the ground. Another configuration is to take photos and provide and relay various types of sensor data and infrared imagery. Yet another configuration is to function as a “communication node," which allows soldiers to communicate with one another when something may be blocking a radio signal -- a mountain for example.

The “communication node” function of a Global Hawk has non-military uses as well, by being the first “eyes-on” to a disaster.

“There have been times when there have been tsunamis or earthquakes, or other natural disasters where the government was able to divert a Global Hawk over to an area of interest in Japan or the Philippines,” said Salafia. “As you can imagine, if you have also got that communication capability, you can immediately re-establish emergency communications to help the relief effort.”