Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week in review (1/31 to 2/6)

Organizations that have been backing the Northrop Grumman/EADS bid to win the tanker project have apparently seen the writing on the wall and are now throwing their lot in with the idea of a dual tanker buy.

The Aerospace Alliance, the marketing partnership of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Northwest Florida, now says it supports buying aerial refueling tankers from both Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS. Boeing would build the planes in Washington state, and Northrop/EADS would build them in a still-unbuilt plant in Mobile, Ala.

The group's Web site during the week posted a story saying a dual purchase would mean 36 tankers a year rather than 12 and create up to 100,000 jobs nationwide. Back in October when the alliance was established, it said its priority was to support Northrop/EADS' effort to win the competition. Now it's shifted to a dual tanker buy, and it's not hard to see why.

It boils down to what's in the draft request for proposal. The Northrop/EADS team says the current version favors the smaller planes being offered by Boeing, and if it's not changed, Northrop says it won't bid. The company believes that would be a waste of money. The Pentagon, for its part, has indicated it will not be making any major changes to the RFP that will be released this month. The Pentagon expects to award the $35 billion contract for the tanker this summer and allocated $12 billion to pay for the program over the next five fiscal years.

- Politics continues to insert itself in the entire process. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., during the week placed a hold on President Obama's nominees. A spokesman said Shelby is concerned about the tanker request for proposal. But that's not the only Alabama-related project that concerns him. A statement from Shelby's office said he's concerned the president's proposed 2011 budget rescinds funds to build the FBI Terrorist Explosives Devices Analytical Center in Huntsville, Ala.

- While all this was going on, an Airbus A330 tanker transport marked a new milestone with the aerial refueling of a French Air Force E-3F AWACS radar aircraft. The plane, which is much like the KC-45 that would be built in Mobile, transferred more than 65,000 pounds of fuel during two missions. The latest refueling missions were part of the flight test and military certification program for the Royal Australian Air Force’s A330. Australia has ordered five aircraft, the first of which will be delivered later this year.

If you think the tanker project is political, just sit back and watch what happens in another field that's crucial to the Gulf Coast region. The president sent his proposed budget to Congress early in the week, and, as expected, it included no money for NASA's plan to send astronauts to the moon. The agency will get $19 billion under the Obama plan, but none of the money will go to the Constellation program.

The budget proposal does extend the commitment to the International Space Station, and provides $6 billion to invest in a plan to have commercial companies develop a space taxi to get astronauts to the ISS.

Politicians with NASA facilities in their state and companies that are involved in Constellation are raising a stink. Shelby says the budget "begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight."

- As if to affirm the new direction, on the same day the president's budget was given to Congress, NASA awarded $50 million in stimulus money to five teams in support of the transportation of crew to and from the International Space Station. Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo., was awarded $20 million and Boeing in Houston was awarded $18 million. United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colo., Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., and Paragon Space Development Corp., Tucson, Ariz., will get $6.7 million, $3.7 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

- Despite the changes being sought by the Obama, work will continue on the A-3 rocket test stand at Stennis Space Center, Miss. Stennis Director Gene Goldman said construction could take another year and a half on the $300 million project. Goldman said $157 million has been spent already, with about $43 million more contracted. Goldman also doesn't expect the president's plan to create a loss of civil service employees, but he won't know the status on contract labor for several months. Stennis has more than 400 civil servants and more than 1,800 contractors.

There was a shakeup during the week in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he'd replace the general in charge of the program and withhold $614 million in award fees from contractor Lockheed Martin.

The Pentagon plans to buy more than 2,400 F-35s over the next 25 years for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Gates disclosed the changes as he released the Pentagon's proposed $708.3 billion spending package for fiscal 2011. Gates said during the week that the services will receive F-35s on time but in smaller numbers.

Gates, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon's fiscal 2011 budget request, said fewer F-35s will be produced during the initial years of production than originally anticipated. The first training squadron of JSFs will still arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2011. The Marine Corps will start receiving its version of the F-35 in 2012, the Air Force in 2013 and the Navy in 2014.

- Pratt and Whitney delivered the first F135 production engine for the F-35 JSF. The engine has accrued more than 13,000 hours in testing during the development program. Meanwhile, Wyle air crew personnel became the first aviators to aerially refuel the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the F-35 using a probe-and-drogue refueling system during a recent mission at Lockheed Martin’s Ft. Worth, Texas, manufacturing facility.

- In another aircraft program, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., is putting the final touches on a new gunship program, with plans to have the first AC-130J delivered by fiscal year 2014, with the remaining 15 by fiscal year 2018. That’s according to Inside Defense.

The new gunship will replace the AC-130H. According to Inside Defense, the AC-130J will have the capability of being able to strike two targets simultaneously with precision weapons. In addition, the AC-130J will have a standoff capability to engage long-range targets. And that's a big plus for SOF troops on the ground who rely on the gunship to take out enemy targets. A stand-off weapons helps keep their position a secret.

Unmanned systems
The rate of growth has slowed somewhat, but unmanned aerial vehicles continue to be the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry. The Teal Group's 2010 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $4.9 billion annually to $11.5 billion, totaling just over $80 billion in the next ten years. That's of interest to this region because Global Hawk and Fire Scout unmanned systems are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

The Air Force awarded the 720th Special Tactics Group of Hurlburt Field, Fla., with the Gallant Unit Citation for heroism in combat. The award was given for the unit's work through all of 2006 and 2007 in Afghanistan. The 720th was the only Air Force unit to receive a Gallant Unit Citation during that period.

4Q reports
Northrop Grumman posted a fourth-quarter net earnings of $413 million and 2009 net earnings of $1.7 billion. Last year the company reported a fourth quarter net loss of $2.5 billion and net loss for the year of $1.3 billion. Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman has multiple operations in the Gulf Coast region.

NorthWest Florida Contractors Inc., Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was awarded an $8 million contract to provide all plant, materials, labor, equipment, and operations for construction of various reinforced concrete targets at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. 96 CONS/PKA, Eglin Air Force Base is the contracting activity.

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