By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The cost of flying Northrop Grumman Corp's <NOC. N> RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned spy plane has dropped more than 50 percent over the past three years, reflecting higher use and efforts to lower operating costs, a source familiar with the program said.

Government records show that it cost $18,900 per hour to fly the high-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance drone in mid-2013, compared to $40,600 in 2010, according to the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The source said the cost was driven lower in part by higher usage, which meant logistics and support costs were spread over a higher number of flight hours.

Contractor logistic support, which accounts for a large portion of the overall cost per flight hour, dropped even more sharply to just under $11,000 per flight hour, from nearly $25,000 three years ago, the source said.

Details about the operating cost of the unmanned planes emerged as the Air Force worked on two budget proposals for fiscal 2015. One of those examines the impact of a 10 percent across-the-board funding cut that would apply if mandatory spending cuts under sequestration remained in effect.

The Air Force has sought for two years to truncate the Block 30 version of the Global Hawks, arguing that it would be less expensive to keep flying its Cold War-era U2 manned spy planes. Lawmakers have thus far blocked those plans.

No comment was immediately available from the Air Force, which operates the unmanned planes, on the flight hour data.

Northrop spokesman Randy Belote declined to comment on specific flight hour data, but said the company was working to improve the performance of the aircraft, which has been used for surveillance over Iraq and Afghanistan, and natural disasters.

The Navy is developing its own version of Global Hawk, called Triton, that will be used for maritime surveillance.

Tom Vice, who heads the company's aeronautics division, told reporters last month that Northrop was continuing aggressive efforts to reduce the cost per flying hour of the plane, and had cut the cost significantly. He gave no further details.

"We're pleased with the operational performance of Global Hawk and are working closely with the Air Force to improve the system and bring down costs," Belote said.

The Air Force announced on Thursday that it had awarded Northrop a contract valued at $170 million to provide logistics support for the RQ-4 Global Hawk through September 2014.

The contract includes fielded air vehicles, engines, payloads, ground segments and other support.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Richard Chang)


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