The attendees included top managers from Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, SAIC, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and other defense contractors, large and small. But to John Porter of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the significance of the event was really in the turnout on the Navy's side.
The Navy hosts for the "Industry Day" near Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station included six flag officers - a three-star admiral, three two-star admirals and two one-stars.
To Porter, the parade of gold braid meant the Navy wanted to show it was serious about moving ahead with its development of a program to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to patrol vast ocean regions around the world.
What the Navy wants is a high-flying robotic aircraft capable of flying as far as 2,000 miles to an aerial patrol station, where it can provide maritime surveillance for almost 24 hours at a time.
The effort reflects the military's deepening use of UAVs, which were rapidly adapted for use in the Balkans during the late 1990s and have seen action throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Navy program, called Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, or BAMS, represents the first large-scale deployment of UAVs to monitor strategic shipping lanes, ports and other regions protected by U.S. warships.
The BAMS program also represents a potentially multibillion-dollar prize that would likely land in San Diego. That's because the two industry leaders in UAV technology - Northrop Grumman's Unmanned Systems and GA Aeronautical Systems - are based there.
GA Aeronautical Systems hopes to duplicate the success it achieved last year when the U.S. Army awarded the first contract for a modified version of its Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft in a billion-dollar program.
For the Navy, the company has developed a modified version of the Predator, called the Mariner.
Northrop Grumman plans to offer the Navy a modified version of the Global Hawk, a high-altitude UAV the company developed for the Air Force.
A potential rival emerged recently, however, when Lockheed Martin rolled out an unmanned flying wing, the P-175 Polecat, on July 19 at the Farnborough International Air Show near London. The high-altitude UAV resembles the tailless design of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Lockheed Martin has been working closely on the Mariner with GA Aeronautical Systems, but industry magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology suggested in a July 24 report that the partnership may falter if the Navy decides it wants to incorporate stealth technology in its BAMS UAV.
"That's not something that we're saying," said Melissa F. Dalton, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Palmdale, Calif.
Porter, GA Aeronautical Systems' business development manager, also doubted that the Navy would view Polecat as a contender for BAMS.
"I think that thing is too new and too high-risk," Porter said. "The Navy is not looking for something that developmental. But could it be the follow-on in 10 years? Sure."
Under a process that began with the industry briefing May 17, the Navy plans to issue a draft "request for proposals" in September or October that outlines the requirements for its BAMS program. The schedule calls for issuing a final request for proposals by January, and awarding the contract by September 2007.
Under the plans outlined by the Navy, a fleet of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft would be based at five bases in sufficient numbers to provide surveillance of key oceans around the world.
The first aircraft and sensors would be ready for testing in 2011, and the system should be ready for use by 2013.
The Navy has determined much of what it wants for the BAMS program through a series of flight tests and naval training exercises conducted over the past year or so.
For example, the Navy used a prototype Mariner during its "Trident Warrior" exercise off San Clemente Island in June. "The Navy has never had a capability like what we showed them," Porter said. He said the Mariner can remain aloft for 45 to 50 hours, and can fly as low as 200 feet to inspect individual ships and as high as 52,000 feet to provide a high-altitude overview.
In 2001, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk became the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean, landing near Adelaide, Australia, following a nonstop, 22-hour trip from Edwards Air Force Base.
The robotic spy plane, designed to operate at high altitude much like a piloted U-2, included a radar redesigned for maritime use to participate in an Australian military exercise.
The U.S. Navy later tried out the maritime sensors in its own Global Hawk flight tests.
The Naval Air Station at Patuxent River finally acquired two Global Hawks earlier this year for full-time use in naval exercises and training.
Such operations have helped the Navy develop better specifications for sensor performance and aircraft performance in a Marine environment, said Capt. Paul Morgan of the Navy-Marine Corps Unmanned Aerial Systems office.
In particular, the specialized radar developed to track moving ground targets had to be reconfigured to account for the movement of waves in open water, Morgan said.
"We've learned a lot about high-altitude maritime surveillance, and we continue to learn," Morgan said.
But the jet-powered Global Hawk also came under fire in April from the Government Accountability Office over changes that resulted in substantially higher production costs.
The GAO found that the aircraft's procurement costs soared to nearly $6.66 billion - or $130.5 million for each Global Hawk aircraft.
That includes the costs for all aircraft, ground stations, support equipment and spares.
The GAO contrasted that with the second-generation Predator, a rival UAV developed by GA Aeronautical Systems at a cost of $1.21 billion - or $19.2 million for each Predator aircraft.
A 2005 assessment by the Naval Research Advisory Committee also found that operating costs for the Global Hawk were higher than for any existing or proposed Navy surveillance aircraft.
The advisory committee, a group of independent civilian scientists who advise the Office of Naval Research, determined the cost of operating the Global Hawk at $26,500 per flight hour. The group also reported operating costs for the Predator at $5,000 per flight hour.
In comparison, the group set the Navy's cost for operating its E-2C Hawkeye, a manned airborne warning and control aircraft, at $18,700 per flight hour.
"I am bewildered by the apparent high operating costs of Global Hawk," said John Pike, a longtime defense analyst and director of the Web site GlobalSecurity.org.
"I am guessing that it is the result of a high fixed cost spread over a small fleet with few flight hours, and that once the thing is really up and running the cost will be a fraction of this number," he said.
Northrop Grumman officials did not respond to requests for comment about Global Hawks' operating costs or the BAMS program. But GA Aeronautical Systems disputed the accuracy of the committee's operating cost estimates.
Spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz said the hourly operating cost for the first-generation Predator is about $500 per hour - one-tenth of the committee's estimate.
Copley News Service Washington bureau staff writer Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.