Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit aided by lower pension expenses.

The supplier of unmanned spy planes and communications and intelligence work had net earnings of $376 million, or $1.27 a share, for the fourth quarter, compared with $413 million, or $1.31 a share, a year earlier.

Earnings from continuing operations also were $1.27 a share against $1.19 a share a year earlier. Analysts expected profit of $1.01 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales fell 3 percent to $8.6 billion from $8.9 billion, and the company cited fewer working days in the latest quarter.

The company forecast 2011 profit from continuing operations of $6.40 to $6.60 a share, compared with $6.77 a diluted share for 2010.

Northrop said its 2011 forecast excluded results from shipbuilding, a business it is planning to sell or spin off. Sales of $27.5 billion are seen for this year, compared with $34.8 billion for 2010.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs, editing by Dave Zimmerman)