LONDON U.S. defense company Northrop Grumman Corp is in talks about selling its high-altitude surveillance drones in Europe, with Britain, Germany and Norway seen as the likeliest customers, a top executive said on Wednesday.
Northrop developed the original Global Hawk unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and it has been used extensively over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The company has subsequently sought to sell versions of the Hawk to other countries.
"At the moment I would say that the hottest three (potential European buyers) are Germany, UK and Norway, in the sense that we've got active dialogue going on with those countries," Northrop's UK and European chief executive Andrew Tyler told reporters on Wednesday.
The aircraft, which is not armed, is designed to travel at 60,000 feet, high above the airspace used by commercial planes, and can fly non-stop for about 32 hours, gathering images and related information about conflict zones or natural disasters.
A $1.7 billion contract the company signed with NATO for a five-drone surveillance and intelligence system in 2012 will help boost European sales, believes Tyler, as potential new customers will get a taste of the aircraft's capabilities.
Germany is already familiar with it. Northrop remains in long-running talks with the country about a stalled 1.2 billion euro ($1.6 billion) purchase of four Euro Hawks, which Northrop developed with Europe's Airbus based on the Global Hawk design.
"Our discussions with them (the Germans) continue ... we definitely remain hopeful," Tyler said.
Northrop also threw its hat into the ring as a contender to help fulfill Britain's need for new maritime patrol capability by providing the country with its un-manned aircraft.
Since scrapping its former program - the delayed and over-budget BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 - as part of its defense review in 2010, experts say Britain has struggled, for example, to carry out aerial hunts for submarines and they expect the country to fire the starting gun on a maritime patrol aircraft competition in the coming years.
Tyler said that the Triton maritime aircraft, also a part of the Global Hawk family, could work alongside an order for manned aircraft to patrol British seas, adding that due to the drone's lower fuel costs, a mixed fleet would be cheaper than going for a manned-only solution.
Australia earlier this year opted to protect its maritime interests that way, supplementing its purchase of eight Boeing P-8A Poseidon planes with a number of MQ-4C Tritons.($1 = 0.7529 euros)
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)