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.

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