Saturday, May 16, 2009

Week in review (5/10 to 5/16)

No doubt the battle between Boeing and Northrop Grumman over the aerial tanker is a high-stakes, high-profile fight. But keep an eye out on developments in the unmanned aerial vehicle field. Down the road, that’s where you’ll see some real battles for federal dollars.

Aviation Week during the week had a comprehensive, higly detailed story about Boeing's new rapid prototyping initiative. The company, which has been pretty much shut out of the tactical aircraft arena, is going to use company money to develop the Phantom Ray, based on the defunct X-45. It's using R&D money to flight test the demonstrator in late 2010.

That will give Boeing experience in the combat UAV market. And that's no small matter. Some analysts, according to Aviation Week, think the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could be the last manned fighter. Aerospace company that want future dollars will have to be a healthy player in unmanned systems.

The UAV market is dominated by Northrop Grumman, which makes the Global Hawk, Fire Scout and Hunter, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which developed the Predator and Reaper.

The Phantom Ray is the former X-45C, three of which were ordered to demonstrate land-based unmanned combat drones required by the Air Force. But the Air Force dropped its program, leaving on the Navy, which chose the Northrop Grumman’s X-47.

Boeing officials are playing it smart. Navy officials plan to hold another competition when Northrop’s X-47 demonstrator flight tests end. The Phantom Ray could very well enter the competition then for a stealthy aircraft that will operate from aircraft carriers. (Story)

- During the past week a new kid, more or less, came on the UAV block. General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products and Elbit Systems of America formed a new company – UAS Dynamics LLC, which will be located in Fort Mill, S.C.

The joint venture is equally owned by General Dynamics and ESA, and will offer a line of combat-tested unmanned systems – the Hermes and Skylark – to the Department of Defense and other potential government customers. (Story)

General Dynamics has multiple operations in the Gulf Coast region.

Elbit Systems NA is the American operation of one of Israel's largest defense electronics manufacturers and integrators. ESA owns EWF in Fort Worth, Texas; IEI in Talladega, Ala.; Kollsman in New Hampshire; Talla-Com of Tallahassee, Fla.; Innovative Concepts Inc. of McLean, Va.; and VSI in San Jose, Calif., a joint venture with Rockwell Collins.

- Officials during the week said that Northrop Grumman’s Hunter UAV, used by the Army since 1996, has surpassed 75,000 flight hours in service. The MQ-5B Hunter is used for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, weapons delivery and communications relay. The Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss., has done refurbishing work on the Hunter, and could do more in the future.

- The Coast Guard is still in the market for a UAV for the new National Security Cutter fleet. The Coast Guard ended its own vertical takeoff UAV program and has been monitoring other programs, according to the assistant commandant for acquisition. He said the Navy’s Fire Scout appears to be the farthest along. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss., and the first National Security Cutter was built in Pascagoula, Miss.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates soon will provide data to Congress on the cost of buying tankers from both Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team. The Senate Appropriations Committee planned to insert language requiring the data in the fiscal 2009 war spending bill, but dropped the plan after Gates talked to the chairman. Pentagon officials oppose splitting the contract, saying it would be too costly. Some in Congress say a split buy would prevent a losing side from filing a protest and delaying the important procurement. Northrop/EADS will assemble the tankers in Mobile, Ala., if the team wins all or part of the contract.

- In a related developing during the week, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. refuted a published report that indicated the economy may force it to scrap plans to build cargo aircraft in Mobile, Ala. Aerospace Daily quoted an Airbus executive as saying the company was re-evaluating the plan to assemble a cargo version of the A330 in Mobile because of slack demand for the planes. EADS had said back in January 2008 that it would build the cargo planes in Mobile if it wins the tanker competition.

- An Airbus A330 tanker transport completed a test of the in-flight handling characteristics of its refueling boom system. The flutter testing of the first A330 built for Australia was done under a variety of conditions. In a different test last month, the A330 was refueled by a French C-135. Northrop Grumman plans to use the A330 platform for its KC-45, which is competing against the Boeing KC-767 for a $40 billion Air Force contract.

Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, was chosen as the permanent home of 24th Air Force, a new numbered Air Force headquarters focused on the cyber mission. That decision is tentative, pending results of an environmental study. In October 2008 Air Force officials announced the creation a numbered group under Air Force Space Command rather than the major command that had been expected. Several Gulf Coast bases had submitted proposals when the prize was the major command.

- Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is getting some additional personnel. The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center at Kirkland Air Force Base, N.M. is reorganizing – pending completion of an environmental impact assessment. The change will shift 33 percent of the personnel from AFOTEC’s Kirtland headquarters to four AFOTEC detachments. In addition to Eglin, other bases getting additional personnel will be Edwards AFB, Calif., Nellis AFB, Nev., and Peterson AFB, Colo. The change affects 20 civilian and 71 military billets.

- A Valparaiso resident recorded the sounds of an F-35, F-15 and F-16 last month and played them early in the week at a Valparaiso City Council meeting to show the differences. Bob Webb, an audio professional, played the 45-second clip during an hour-long presentation attended by about 50 people. According to his estimates, the average person would find the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter two to three times louder than the F-16. The Air Force plans to locate the JSF training center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

- The new commander of the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis, wants to improve the synergy between aircraft and weapons. Davis, who previously was program executive officer of the Joint Strike Fighter, has managed other aircraft programs as well and wants to incorporate that knowledge into Eglin’s weapons programs. He thinks AAC can do a better job improving the synergy between the weapons and the airframe. Eglin is scheduled to become home to the Joint Striker Fighter Training Center and the 7th Special Forces Group.

The long-term plan for human spaceflight will have to wait until the end of the summer at the earliest while a panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine reviews it at the request of the White House. The panel will include NASA insiders and outside experts to review the Bush-era “Vision for Space Exploration.”

Among topics to be covered will be narrowing the post-shuttle gap in delivering crews to the International Space Station on U.S. vehicles; pushing human exploration beyond low Earth orbit to the moon and beyond, and boosting commercial human spaceflight, according to John Holdren, Obama's science adviser. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans are both involved in the space program.

- Boeing is relocating headquarters for its Missile Defense Systems division from Arlington, Va., to Huntsville, starting immediately. Boeing initially will shift division management and support functions to Huntsville, and will evaluate moving other MDS employees. Between 40 and 50 positions may be transferred by the end of this year. Boeing says customers have been locating more operations to Huntsville and it wants to remain close to them. Boeing also has operations in New Orleans and Northwest Florida.

The Air Force during the week awarded two contracts to Raytheon of Tucson, Ariz. One is for $53.9 million to provide miniature air launched decoys. 692 ARSS/PK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. The other is $521.2 million for air intercept missiles. 695ARSS, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

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