Saturday, November 28, 2009

Week in review (11/22 to 11/28)

You might not have heard much about it during the week, but the announcement that the United States won’t share the F-35’s sensitive software codes with allies who buy the Joint Strike Fighter is bound to have implications down the road.

The software coding is key to the stealthy plane's electronic brains, controlling systems ranging from weapons to radar and flight performance. The United States is concerned about protecting the code from falling into the wrong hands. But without the code, allies won't be able to maintain or upgrade the aircraft without U.S. help. And that irritates the British.

The Mail in the United Kingdom reports that British defense chiefs are furious, and see the decision as a blow to the “special relationship” between the two countries. The U.K., which has been pushing for access for years, doesn’t want to have to depend on the United States to maintain or modify the F-35s. It’s a question of sovereignty.

The F-35 built by Lockheed Martin and its partners is promoted as an international fighter development program. The United States has been shouldering most of the cost, but Britain is its biggest partner. Other core partners are Italy, Holland, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

Lockheed Martin projects it will sell up to 4,500 F-35s worldwide. But whether this decision about the coding will lower the numbers remains to be seen. Australia just this past week approved the purchase of its first 14 F-35s. And Canadian officials are not concerned about the codes. A Canadian defense spokeswoman told the Ottawa Citizen that Canada knew it would not be provided with the codes.

The decision could be a boost to F-35 competitors, including Boeing’s F/A-18E/F SuperHornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon made by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies, Saab’s Gripen, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, and Russia’s MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35.

For the Gulf Coast, the decision to withhold the coding may wind up giving this region yet another crucial aerospace asset. To address the concerns of allies, the United States plans to set up a "reprogramming facility," probably at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is also the home of the first Joint Strike Fighter Training Center.

That reprogramming facility will further develop F-35-related software and distribute upgrades. Software changes will be integrated there and new operational flight programs will be disseminated out to everybody who is flying the jet.

The Pentagon's chief arms buyer during the week spurned pressure from Boeing allies in Congress to factor a World Trade Organization ruling against Airbus into the competition to build aerial tankers to the Air Force.

Ashton Carter told reporters the Pentagon addressed the trade issue when it put out draft bidding rules in September for a tanker rematch between Boeing and the team of Northrop Grumman and Airbus parent EADS. The Pentagon said the WTO findings were preliminary.

The issue is being watched closely in Mobile, Ala. If the Northrop Grumman/EADS team wins the competition, it will assemble the tankers in that city.

- An Australian A330 tanker has performed the first simultaneous fuel transfer with its all-digital hose-and-drogue system, fueling two fighter aircraft at the same time, according to EADS. The hose-and-drogue fuel transfers occurred Nov. 18 during a flight test sortie that utilized both the A330 MRTT's left and right under-wing pods. The plane conducted 11 simultaneous airborne refueling contacts with two NATO F/A-18 fighters and transferred more than 25,000 lbs of fuel. The tanker is the same type being offered by the Northrop Grumman/EADS team to the Air Force.

NASA has selected for development 368 small business innovation projects that include research to minimize aging of aircraft, new techniques for suppressing fires on spacecraft and advanced transmitters for deep space communications. Chosen from more than 1,600 proposals, the awards are part of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. Six of the awards will develop technologies for the Innovative Partnership Program at John C. Stennis Space Center.

- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will present astronaut Fred Haise Jr. with NASA's Ambassador of Exploration Award during a Dec. 2 ceremony at the Gorenflo Elementary School in Biloxi, Miss. Haise will present the award, consisting of a moon rock encased in Lucite for display, to the superintendent of the Biloxi Public School System and the school’s principal. Haise attended Gorenflo many years ago.

Unmanned systems
Northrop Grumman completed the first three MQ-8B Fire Scout production deliveries to the Navy, which completes the first year of Low Rate Initial Production for the UAV helicopter. Two of the three Fire Scouts were deployed aboard the USS McInerney for use on a scheduled operational deployment.

Fire Scouts have been aboard the USS McInerney four times since December 2008, completing 110 ship takeoffs and landings and 45 landings with the harpoon grid, accumulating over 47 hours of flight time. Fire Scouts are made in part in Moss Point, Miss.

Layoffs and recalls
Goodrich in Foley, Ala., will lay off 78 people in January. The layoffs are from the maintenance, repair, and overhaul division. A representative from the company blamed it on slow demand and the global recession. Company leaders say employees will be offered severance packages and will be eligible to keep their health insurance for six months. Goodrich employs about 800 people in Foley.

- Teledyne Continental Motors in Mobile, Ala., is recalling and replacing an engine part in several hundred airplane engines after the part began to wear out more rapidly than normal. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all the planes containing the hydraulic lifters until the parts are replaced. About 450 engines and parts sets were in question, and more than two-thirds have already been replaced.

Passenger levels were up nearly 9 percent last month at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Figures show there were 704,686 passengers, compared to 648,544 in October 2008. It’s attributed to concert-goers, conventioners and football fans.

Composite Engineering Inc. was awarded a $37.6 million contract which procures additional subscale aerial targets. 691 ARSS/PK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Week in review (11/15 to 11/21)

Anyone who wants the U.S. military to get the best equipment available has to be disgusted by the entire aerial tanker fight. It hasn’t been about the best aircraft for a long time. It’s been about political clout, jobs and public relations. The Pentagon is forced to walk such a fine line that it’s no longer looking for value, but the path of least resistance.

And that does not bode well for America’s leadership role.

This nation's procurement system is captive to parochial interests. Politicians and the companies that are in their backyard have teamed up to the point where the welfare of the United States – and notably the warfighters we send in harm’s way – has taken a back seat to winning contracts and creating or maintaining jobs back home. And that means fighting for nearly every dollar the Pentagon awards.

The proof can be found in the numbers. Back in April the Government Accountability Office found that Pentagon contract protests rose 24 percent in 2008 from the previous year. The Pentagon is trying to figure out the cause and the cost of the record 611 contract award protests in 2008. I can save them some time. The cause is the chase for dollars, and the cost is a denigration of U.S. warfighting capability.

Military procurement has taken the normal relationship between customer and manufacturer and turned it on its head. It’s not the customer deciding what he or she wants, but the manufacturer and its supporters. That’s a recipe for disaster. Ask yourself this: Who should be responsible for the nation’s defense, the political-industrial teams or the Pentagon? Before you answer, take a close look at what motivates them.

A politician’s first order of business is getting elected, and that means showing constituents they are protecting jobs. For companies, it’s the bottom line – bringing in money and making shareholders happy. And the Pentagon? Its mission is to defend the nation. The Pentagon should have the same mindset as the men and women who are in the field. Ask the warfighter if they care who’s making the equipment. My guess is the only concern is if that it work and provide them with competitive advantage on the battlefield.

Politics and parochial interests also threaten our leadership role in space. A panel of experts during the week told the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics that America’s once clear dominance in space is eroding as other nations, including China, Iran and North Korea, step up their activities. Sixty nations now have their own space agencies, and 13 have active space programs. Eight are capable of launching their own satellites.

Panelists attributed the relative decline in U.S. space leadership to NASA's fluctuating budgets and repeated changes of direction as administrations and congresses come and go. There you have it. Politics, once again.

In the current tanker fight, it might help Boeing, Northrop Grumman and EADS to take a longer view. If they did, they’d realize that, while they are competitors this year and in the immediate future, they won’t be the only game in town in coming years. China is making a big push to become a major player in aerospace, and so is Brazil. How many other players there might be in years to come is unclear. But it’s time this tanker fight wind to a close. Split the contract, build tankers in Washington state and Mobile, Ala., and move on to contract battles yet to come.

- In other tanker-related items during the week, Mayor Sam Jones of Mobile, Ala., in the wake of a lobbying trip to Washington this week, expressed hope that lawmakers are open to the possibility of buying new aerial refueling tankers from both Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team. Jones said the Mobile group met with nine lawmakers Wednesday and Thursday. Earlier this week, a group of more than a dozen lawmakers who are Boeing supporters began a push to have the Pentagon factor a World Trade Organization dispute over aircraft subsidies into the tanker competition.

Unmanned systems
The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $302.9 million fixed price incentive fee contract for five RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems. Under the Lot 7 production contract, the company will build two Block 30 systems and three Block 40 systems for the 303d Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Global Hawks are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

- Northrop Grumman during the week said the Air Force has granted the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle a military Airworthiness Certification, a step on the path to routine unmanned flight within the United States. The AWC process verifies an aircraft design has met performance requirements within the mission profile to safely fly in national airspace and assures operators and mission managers that the production articles conform to the design.

- Navy researchers are asking industry to develop a collision avoidance system to enable unmanned aerial vehicles to operate in civil airspace. The Office of Naval Research issued a broad agency announcement for the Unmanned Air System Autonomous Collision Avoidance System to enable UAVs to sense and avoid other aircraft while operating in the National Air Space System. Initial research to develop a UAVcollision-avoidance system will focus on the Navy Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and Army Tier 2 Shadow fixed-wing UAV. Air Force researchers are pursuing a similar initiative. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

- Unmanned aerial systems may be the rage, but Boeing has just announced the successful test of a mobile laser system to bring them down. The test was conducted in May, and demonstrated the ability of mobile laser weapon systems to track and destroy small UAVs. During the tests at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif., the Mobile Active Targeting Resource for Integrated eXperiments (MATRIX) used a single, high-brightness laser beam to shoot down five UAVs at various ranges. Boeing has operations in the Gulf Coast; the Gulf Coast has several unmanned systems operations.

NASA’s Ares I rocket got top honors in TIME magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2009” special edition. The magazine calls the rocket the "best and coolest and smartest thing built in 2009." The magazine’s Paul Kluger noted that in 2004 the nation committed itself to sending astronauts back to the moon and beyond, and Ares I’s first flight last month "dazzled even the skeptics." Alliant Techsystems is the prime contractor for the solid rocket motor first stage of the Ares I. The company’s air-burst munitions system, XM25, was No. 46 in the best inventions list. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center, Miss., are both involved in NASA's program to return astronauts to space.; ATK has an operation in Northwest Florida.

A Lockheed Martin F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing fighter arrived in Maryland last weekend and will soon conduct its first hovers and vertical landings. The ferry flight initiates a sequence of F-35 arrivals at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., this year and next. The F-35 flew from Fort Worth, Texas, with one stop in Georgia. Lockheed Martin is developing the F-35 with its principal industrial partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will become home of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training center.

Airbus SAS and partners Aerolia SA, Premium Aerotec GmbH and Spirit AeroSystems Inc. selected Alliant Techsystems to produce composite structures and tooling for its A350 XWB aircraft. Total expected revenues for ATK is about $1 billion. Combined with the previous announcement for A350 XWB composite engine components, this new selection makes the aircraft the largest commercial program in ATK's history. The company will produce the components at its composite manufacturing center of excellence in Iuka, Miss. ATK has an operation in Northwest Florida; Airbus has an engineering center in Mobile, Ala.

The secretary of the Air Force presented the 2008 and 2009 Small Business Programs Special Achievement Awards at the Air Force Office of Small Business Programs Conference Nov. 17 in Arlington, Va. Among the eight recipients of the fiscal 2009 awards: the 693rd Armament Systems Squadron, Lethal Suppression of Enemy Air Defense Harm Targeting System Team at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which won the team award.

- Airport officials say they hope to select a new aviation director for the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans during the first quarter of 2010. Monday is the last day for candidates to file resumes. About 30 applications have been received so far, according to Aviation Board Chairman Dan Packer. The board began its search in mid-September.

There were three contracts during the week of interest to the Gulf Coast region. Sierra Nevada Corp., Centennial, Colo., was awarded a $9.1 million contract to provide aircraft weapon integration. AAC/PKES, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … DTS Aviation Services Inc., Fort Worth, Texas, was awarded a $13.9 million contract which will provide aircraft backshop maintenance, munitions and equipment support services for the Air Armament Center and for their command and control, communications, computers and intelligence systems testing for a 12 month period. 96 CONS/PKB, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Raytheon Co., Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $18.4 million contract which will provide for the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Mission Targeting System fiscal year 10 contractor logistics support option. 693 ARSS/PK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Week in review (11/8 to 11/14)

A few issues came up during the week in the aerial tanker competition, the battle between Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS to replace the Air Force’s fleet of KC-135s. It’s of interest to the Gulf Coast because the Northrop/EADS team plans to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala.

Sen. John McCain raised concerns about the Pentagon's latest attempt to replace the aircraft. In an Oct. 29 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McCain asked detailed questions about how bids for the program would be evaluated, how decisions were made about requirements for the new airplanes and whether the new rules would favor mostly smaller airplanes. Reuters obtained a copy of the letter.

But McCain is hardly alone. Robert Burton, a former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement, told InsideDefense that the tanker request for proposals is inconsistent with federal regulations and may violate the law. He said the draft request “goes against the spirit of the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act.” Burton focused on the draft request's use of a pass/fail approach for 373 mandatory criteria and awarding the contract to the lowest-priced plane that meets those criteria. (Story)

- The tanker competition came up during the week at the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation’s annual investors dinner in Moss Point, Miss. Mitch Waldman, Northrop Grumman’s point man on the tanker, said that if Northrop Grumman and teammate EADS win it will bring thousands of jobs to the area. Another speaker, Sen. Roger Wicker, called that process “politicized beyond what I’ve seen in my 15 years in Congress.” (Story)

- In another tanker story, EADS North America said the A330 tanker – the same type of plane that is being offered to the Air Force - achieved a milestone with its first nighttime refueling operation using the advanced Aerial Refueling Boom System. The Royal Australian Air Force A330 transferred more than 3,300 pounds of fuel through the ARBS during a multi-contact mission involving two F-16 fighter aircraft.

- Speaking of EADS North America, that company during the week delivered the first of five H-72A training helicopters to the Navy. The H-72A fleet will be based at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., where it is to be used to train test pilots from the U.S. military and allied countries. The H-72A shares the same airframe and is manufactured on the same production line as the Army’s UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopter, both of which are produced in Mississippi by EADS North America’s American Eurocopter subsidiary in Columbus.

Joint Strike Fighter
There was also news during the week on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will become the home of the Joint Strike Fighter Training Center, which will train pilots on all variants of the plane.

The Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine powering the F-35 completed altitude qualification ground testing, the final testing that demonstrates the operability and performance required for conventional take-off and landing and carrier variant initial service release (ISR). ISR is the government’s recognition that the F135 engine is ready for operational use and clears Pratt & Whitney to deliver and field production F135 engines.

- Also during the week, Vought Aircraft Industries said it has taken possession of an F-35C JSF test article from Lockheed Martin and will perform full-scale drop testing on the aircraft in early 2010. The tests are to verify the strength of the F-35C Navy variant landing gear and airframe structure for carrier landing operations. Actual drop testing is currently estimated to start in January and continue through April at the Vought Structures Test Lab in Dallas.

The Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has been awarded the Air Force Organizational Excellence Award. The center manages a $52 billion portfolio of air-launched precision attack, combat support and special project weapon applications. The center also provided full spectrum battle space test capabilities to more than 1,000 ongoing test programs to include aircraft, weapons, command and control and special operations for multiple joint and non-DoD agencies.

- The 8th Special Operations Squadron returned to Hurlburt Field, Fla., with their CV-22s during the week, wrapping up their first operational deployment with the tilt-rotor aircraft. The squadron deployed to Iraq with a Boeing contractor as part of the team. The Osprey, which came to Hurlburt in 2007, has the vertical takeoff and landing and hover capabilities of a helicopter and the long-range and speed of a turboprop fixed-wing airplane.

- The new airport being built near Panama City, Fla., is getting yet another name change. The airport authority voted during the week to change the name to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. It was a month ago that the authority settled on the name Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport. The new airport is scheduled to open in May.

NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi is teaming with students at four Mississippi high schools to develop prototype hardware for the next-generation rockets being built to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit. In the next few months, students at East Central High School in Hurley, Gulfport High School, New Albany School of Career and Technical Education and Petal High School will participate in the High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware initiative. They’ll partner with NASA engineers and mentors and use materials provided by the space agency to develop prototype models for the next generation J-2X engine and the Ares I rocket.

Unmanned systems
News involving unmanned aerial systems is always of high interest to the Gulf Coast region, in part because a number of UAV activities take place here.

BAE Systems has successfully flown the largest fully autonomous unmanned aircraft ever to be built in the United Kingdom. MANTIS completed its maiden flight in Woomera, Australia. Mantis has a 65.6-foot wingspan and is intended to be able to carry electro-optical and radar sensors, as well as a range of air-to-surface weapons. BAE System’s partners in the project include Roll-Royce, QinetiQ, GE Aviation, Meggit and Selex Galileo. Of note to the Gulf Coast, BAE Systems, Roll-Royce, QinetiQ and Selex Galileo all have operations in the region. (Story)

- In another UAV-related story, Boeing received a $500,000 Air Force Research Laboratory contract for the first phase of a program to demonstrate miniature weapon technology for use on unmanned aerial vehicles. As the prime contractor during the initial nine-month program, Boeing will use its experience on the Joint Direct Attack Munition and Small Diameter Bomb programs to develop the system integration, seeker, avionics, guidance and control, and mission planning systems. (Story)

W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co., Biloxi, Miss., is being awarded a $37.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for construction of a community hospital tower at Keesler Air Force Base. Work will be performed in Biloxi and is expected to be completed by September 2011.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Week in review (11/1 to 11/7)

NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was officially designated a “Project Ready” site in a formal event Friday. It’s the first site to earn certification in the “technology park” category of the Mississippi Power program.

The Project Ready designation indicates a site is “shovel-ready” for new businesses that are interested in locating at the facility. The 14,000-acre SSC has about 4,000 acres of developable space. It’s now the second Project Ready site in South Mississippi. The 300-acre Jackson County Aviation Technology Park in Moss Point, Miss., where unmanned aerial systems are built, received the designation in August.

Stennis Space Center is a huge complex. It's where NASA tests propulsion systems, and it remains the facility’s primary function. But over the years it’s attracted more than 30 other tenants. The largest is the Navy, which has its Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at the center. There’s also a detachment of the Naval Research Lab at Stennis, and it’s home to the National Data Buoy Center.

One of the key attractions of SSC is the security. It's surrounded by a 125,000-acre acoustical buffer zone.

- The first Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellite bound for geosynchronous orbit is on track for delivery to the Air Force by the fourth quarter of calendar year 2010, according to Lockheed Martin. It will be a milestone for the $10.4 billion program, which has undergone restructuring, overruns and delays. Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space & Technology Center at Stennis Space Center, Miss., builds subsystems for the SBIRS program.

Capt. Pete Hall has been installed as the new commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., replacing Capt. Enrique Sadsad. More than 2,000 people were at the change of command ceremony Thursday. Hall said he looked forward to becoming part of the Whiting family. Sadsad is being assigned to Bahrain. Whiting Field provides initial training for naval aviators.

- Brig. Gen. O.G. Mannon, 82nd Training Wing commander at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, has been named the next vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The announcement was made by the Defense Department Nov. 2. Mannon, who has spent most of his career in the special operations community, said he looks forward to working with old friends.

In the tanker competition pitting Boeing against the Northrop Grumman/EADS team, no “first” goes unnoticed. Boeing said it delivered the first Remote Aerial Refueling Operator Trainer to the Japan Air Self Defense Force last month to support the Boeing KC-767J tanker. It simulates the system that allows boom operators to refuel aircraft while sitting near the tanker cockpit at a console using an array of cameras and remote controls. Meanwhile, in Toulouse, France, the Airbus A330-200 freighter flew Thursday, a milestone for a plane that could eventually be assembled in Mobile, Ala. The Northrop/EADS team wants to assemble the A330-based tanker and the freighter in Mobile, Ala., if the team wins the Air Force competition.

Unmanned systems
The Navy's top admiral said he hoped to speed up work on unmanned weapons systems, including underwater vehicles and an unmanned combat plane. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead cited the Navy's earlier-than-planned deployment last month of the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which he said is performing “wonderfully.” Roughead also said he’s pressing to accelerate development of the Unmanned Combat Aerial System. The Fire Scout and UCAV are both Northrop Grumman products. Northrop Grumman Fire Scout finishing work is done in Moss Point, Miss.