Saturday, March 27, 2010

Week in review (3/21 to 3/27)

Although the Army decided to eliminate the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter from its modernization program, Northrop Grumman continues to fly and test the UAV for the service. And, according to an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology, it’s showing capabilities the Army had not previously considered.

The Army owns eight Fire Scouts now stored at the Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, Miss., which is also building Fire Scouts for the Navy and performing some of the work on Global Hawks. For the Army, which said the lower-cost Shadow with improvements could meet Army needs, the issue boils down to cost.

The decision to drop Fire Scout came just before the month-long demonstration at the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment at Fort Benning, Ga. Northrop Grumman used the demonstration to show the suitability of the Fire Scout for the Army. It delivered cargo, deployed an unmanned ground vehicle and served as a surveillance and communications tool.

Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said there are operational requirements emerging that the Army hadn't previously considered for UAVs, notably cargo. It's keeping close tabs on the Marines, who are evaluating that capability.

According to the article, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey promised Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., he would investigate the options and have an answer by the end of April. (Story)

The Russians won’t be bidding - no real surprise there - but Europe's EADS may be leaning towards bidding on the Air Force tanker contract after all. At least that's what a Reuters analysis said by week's end.

EADS now has prime contractor status, and it hopes to get a 90-day extension on the May 10 bid deadline. EADS and its former teammate, Northrop Grumman, won the $35 billion contest in February 2008, but it was overturned on a Boeing protest. Northrop earlier this month dropped out of the battle on grounds the new request for proposals favors the smaller Boeing tanker. EADS, should it bid and win, would assemble the tankers in Mobile, Ala.

- Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization said during the week that Airbus received improper subsidies for the A380 jet and several other airplanes. The ruling affirmed interim findings last September on the U.S. complaint. The WTO found loans from European governments to develop the A380 were at below market rates and amounted to prohibited subsidies.

An A-10 using a 50-50 mixture of biofuel and conventional JP-8 aviation fuel was tested during the week at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. It was the first time the mixture was tested in both engines. The fuel is derived in part from camelina, a common plant that's been used for lamp fuel and ointments. The military is testing new fuels to diversify its fuel sources.

- In another test at Eglin earlier in the month, Lockheed Martin's Paveway II Plus Laser Guided Bomb completed a series of six flight tests. The bomb uses an enhanced laser guidance package, improving precision when compared to existing Paveway II LGBs. The weapons were launched from altitudes between 10,000 and 30,000 feet against a billboard target angled at 45 degrees. Each successfully initiated laser acquisition at the expected time and guided to the intended target.

- While we’re on the topic of Eglin, an updated study of the impact of the Joint Strike Fighter training school at Eglin shows 59 planes will have an impact of $613 million, down from the $2.15 billion that would have occurred between 2010 and 2016 with all 107 planes originally planned. Though the other 48 planes may still come to Eglin, the Air Force is looking at other bases as well.

A bill was filed in the Senate during the week to prohibit NASA from suspending work on the Constellation Program without justification. The legislation reaffirms language in the FY2010 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that directs NASA to continue moving forward with Constellation and prohibits termination or modification of existing contracts unless separate legislation is passed by Congress. Constellation, the program to take astronauts to the moon and beyond, was canceled in the proposed Obama budget.

The measure was introduced by Sen. George LeMieux of Florida and cosponsored by Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, and Utah's Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, are both involved in the Constellation program.

- Contracts were awarded Thursday to two firms to oversee construction of the Infinity Science Center, south of Stennis Space Center. Roy Anderson Corp. of Gulfport, Miss., submitted the low bid of $15.6 million to construct the building and Eley Guild Hardy of Biloxi was named executive architect. Work will begin May 3. The science center will provide a fun way for visitors to learn about the Earth, oceans and space.

- Also during the week, Stennis Space Center awarded a $26 million contract to A2 Research, JV, of Huntsville, Ala., to provide technical laboratory services at the center. The firm, fixed-priced contract includes a one-year base contract period, plus a one-year option and one three-year option period.

- Four members of the STS-130 Endeavor space shuttle crew thanked employees at Stennis Space Center during the week for their role in a successful mission to the International Space Station. The STS-130 crew delivered a third connecting nodule to the space station, which will increase the interior space for crew members and many life support and environmental control systems. Four more shuttle missions are scheduled.

Continental Airlines plans to lay off 150 ground workers at seven U.S. airports, including Pensacola, Fla., and hire contractors to do the work. The other layoffs to occur June 1 are in Providence, R.I., Greensboro, N.C., Richmond and Norfolk, Va., St. Louis and Kansas City. The company said the seven airports were the only all-regional service airports where Continental still uses its own employees for ground handling work.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Week in review (3/14 to 3/20)

In the long-running drama "As the Tanker Turns," every week ends with a cliffhanger. The latest: Will Europe's EADS go it alone and re-enter the competition? Will a Russian company with an as-yet-unnamed U.S. partner enter the fray? Will the Pentagon opt for another cooling off period and come up with a new request for proposals, this one calling for an unmanned tanker that might double as a taxi to the International Space Station? Oh wait, I'm mixing that up with another soap opera, "All My Spacecraft," the drama about NASA's space program.

This bungled attempt to replace the Air Force's tanker fleet would all be quite hilarious if it didn't involve real men and real women who rely on the government to get its act together and provide them with the tools to do their job. The effort has gone on for a decade now, and it's beginning to look like it will go on for another decade. The problem here is that the primary mission now seems to be making everyone happy, or at least not ticking them off.

And that's impossible.

What's badly needed right now is for someone, somewhere, to say this whole thing has gone far enough. We've lost sight of what's important here - getting replacement aircraft to our warfighters. It's become a story about jobs, international commerce and getting re-elected. It's time to take everyone by the shirt, slap them once and say, "Snap out of it!" They may or may not say, "Thanks. I needed that."

For what it's worth, here's a reality check.

On the possibility of EADS re-entering the race, don't hold your breath. EADS said one requirement is that the deadline be extended. That's possible, and the Pentagon has said so much. But EADS also said that it needs to believe it has a real chance of winning. Good luck with that one. If the Pentagon wouldn't alter the request for proposals when Northrop Grumman threatened to pull out, why would it do a 180 degree now?

But then again, this is the tanker competition and stranger things have happened. So for the sake of argument, let's say the Pentagon did change the rules and it satisfied EADS enough that the company submits a bid with or without a U.S. partner. What would Northrop Grumman say? Do you think the phones of Northrop's legal team would be ringing? Can you say protest? Granted, Northrop said it wouldn't protest the RFP, but that was the current RFP. Do you think that if the Pentagon altered the RFP Northrop would sit back and just note the irony? Unlikely.

And how about the possibility of the Russians entering and winning the race? That has the chance of a Siberian snowball in hell. United Aircraft Corp. apparently plans to offer the Ilyushin Il-96 wide-body, which would be largely built in Russia and assembled in the United States. And how do you think that will play?

Well if you thought the idea of buying tankers with European ties made the "buy American" crowd froth at the mouth, just wait until this Russian airship hits the fan. Admittedly, it would be entertaining to hear a sound bite from a certain senator who wasn’t aware anyone made anything in Alabama. What, pray tell, would be said about buying planes from our former Cold War adversary.

And for Mobile and Alabama, there's the site and incentives issue. Northrop Grumman, Alabama and Mobile-area governments have formally ended their incentives agreements after Northrop threw in the towel. One could assume EADS is still interested in the Mobile site. But apparently so too is the Russian company. Attorney John Kirkland, United Aircraft's representative in Los Angeles, said the group would probably approach officials in Mobile. I suppose they could work out something where the site goes to whichever team wins – if they win.

Stay tuned.

- In one of the more striking bits of news during the week, word came that that EADS-owned Airbus plans to sell about 210 of its A400M military airlifters in the United States.

Domingo Urena, chief of Airbus Military, said it's too early to tell if Airbus would seek a U.S. partner. But it may or may not need one. EADS North America is a prime contractor for the Mississippi-built UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopters.

I couldn't help wondering if this means Airbus will assemble those 210 airlifters in the United States. Any ideas of a site that might be available?

Joint Strike Fighter
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program may be under the gun for running over budget and delays, but the aircraft continues to mark milestones. And that's of interest to the Gulf Coast since Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be the JSF initial training center.

In the latest milestone, an F-35B made a vertical landing for the first time Thursday during testing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The jet performed a 93 miles per hour short takeoff, then 13 minutes into the flight, the pilot positioned the aircraft 150 feet above the airfield, where the F-35 hovered for a minute then descend to the runway.

The aircraft, BF-1, is one of three F-35B STOVL jets undergoing flight trials at the Patuxent River test site. The Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as a group of allied nations, will be buying F-35s in the coming years.

- In another F-35 story during the week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates nominated Vice Adm. David Venlet to run the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The nomination requires Senate approval.

Gates said in early February that he would remove Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz as manager of the JSF and replace him with a three-star officer. The nomination comes as the Pentagon prepares to formally tell Congress that the cost of the F-35 has increased by more than 50 percent.

Unmanned systems
Two military drones built in part in Mississippi appear on some promotional material Northrop Grumman has placed at the Capitol South metro stop in Washington, D.C. Close-up images of the Fire Scout and Global Hawk appear on some of the two-dozen banners and signs used to highlight Northrop Grumman’s weapons capabilities.

The Fire Scout and Global Hawk are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

Northrop Grumman by next year will be moving corporate headquarters from Los Angeles to the Washington D.C. area to be close to its biggest customers. It's wasting no time putting its name in front of powerful lawmakers and Pentagon officials.

Capt. Christopher Plummer has been selected to take over as commander of Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., in mid-April. Plummer, a naval aviator, is attending Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va. Capt. William Reavey was relieved of command earlier this month after allegations of inappropriate conduct. Cmdr. Greg Thomas is serving as commanding officer until Plummer arrives.

- Also at NAS Pensacola during the week, the Blue Angels flight demonstration team returned home to Sherman Field. The team had been in El Centro, Calif., for off-season training. The Blue Angels will perform 67 shows in the upcoming season.

Three military contracts with a Gulf Coast connection were awarded during the week, with Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the contracting activity. Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was awarded an $11.1 million contract modification to provide systems development, integration, and verification phase of the P5 range instrumentation waveform in support of the F-22 and F-35 aircraft. 689 ARSS, Eglin, is the contracting activity. .. Kaman Precision Products Inc. of Orlando, Fla., was awarded a $46.3 million contract modification to provide 12,994 joint programmable fuze systems. 679 ARSS, Eglin, is the contracting activity. … Raytheon Co. of Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $19.5 million contract for an Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air-Missile system improvement program. 696 ARSS, Eglin, is the contracting activity.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Week in review (3/7 to 3/13)

The decision by Northrop Grumman and EADS early in the week to drop out of the competition to build tankers for the Air Force shouldn't have surprised anyone. Northrop had been saying it may not submit a bid since it appeared the Air Force now wanted a smaller tanker. Boeing will now be the sole bidder for the $40 billion contract, and it means Mobile, Ala., will not be assembling KC-45 tankers at Brookley.

Done deal? Likely, but by the end of the week there was at least one report, by Reuters, saying the deadline for bids on the tanker might be extended to give EADS a chance to consider whether it still wants to compete. Seems unlikely, but in this highly politicized program, nothing is surprising anymore.

In throwing in the towel, Northrop CEO Wes Bush, he said the company "will not protest" the request for proposals, even though it feels it has substantial grounds to support a GAO or court ruling to overturn the revised source selection process. Bush said America's warfighters have waited too long for a tanker.

That's certainly true. The Air Force has been trying to replace the tankers for a decade now. Leasing the replacements from Boeing fell apart after a scandal, then Northrop/EADS won the competition in February 2008, but that was overturned after a protest by Boeing. The Air Force came up with a new competition and a new RFP. Northrop said this one favored the smaller Boeing plane. The company, which has to answer to shareholders, decided it would be a waste of money to compete.

The reaction from Boeing supporters and Northrop Grumman/EADS supporters was just what you would have expected. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the Air Force had a chance to provide the most capable plane for warfighters and “blew it.” Washington’s Gov. Chris Gregoire applauded Northrop’s decision not to protest the RFP.

Two leaders in Jackson County, Miss., right next door to Mobile, chose to look at it all a bit differently. George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, said he was disappointed with the Northrop decision not to bid. But he said the Gulf Coast region "still possesses all the ingredients necessary to support new aerospace and technical development and job creation." Jerry St. Pe, former president of Ingalls Shipbuilding, agreed, saying that there are "other opportunities in this whole sphere of aerospace technology that this region is ideally positioned to take advantage of."

Valid point. Take some time to look at the overview of the Gulf Coast aerospace region. That will give you a better sense of what Freeland and St. Pe are talking about.

The tanker is far from the only aerospace activity of interest to the Gulf Coast region. Folks from Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi will be paying close attention to an event in Florida next month.

That’s when President Obama will, apparently, spell out his vision for the future of American astronauts in space. It will be at a conference April 15.

The president has been criticized over plans to kill the Constellation Program, designed to return astronauts to the moon and beyond. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he hopes Obama will use the meeting to lay out a goal and a timetable for sending astronauts to Mars. Although Constellation is under the gun, the program passed a two-day preliminary design review recently.

Joint Strike Fighter
It was reported during the week that the projected cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has increased 60 to 90 percent in real terms since 2001, well past a level requiring the program to be revamped. Pentagon officials said the estimated price of each F-35 jumped to $80 million to $95 million, as measured in 2002 dollars, from $50 million when Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract in 2001.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is slated to be the location for the Joint Strike Fighter Training School. More than 100 of the initial cadre at 33rd Fighter Wing have arrived. Training is still expected to begin this year, but it could be on simulators.

South Mississippi's Keesler Air Force Base's total economic impact for fiscal year 2009 has been calculated at more than $1.1 billion. In addition to employee payroll figures and construction and purchases, the total impact includes military retiree pay and the value of volunteer services as well as jobs indirectly created on the Gulf Coast. Keesler, in Biloxi, is where the Air Force does training in electronics. It's also home to the 403rd Reserve Wing.

McDonnell Douglas Corp., St. Louis, Mo., was awarded a $148.7 million contract to provide for 6,565 Lot `4 guided vehicle kits procured for the Joint Direct Attack Munition. 678 ARSS/PK, Eglin Air Force Base, is the contracting activity. ... McDonnell Douglas also was awarded an $8.8 million contract for 100 focused lethality munitions-small diameter bomb I variant. 681 ARSS, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … BAE Systems Technology Solutions and Services Inc., Rockville, Md., was awarded a $23.2 million modification to a previously awarded contract for maintenance, logistics, and life cycle services in support of communication-electronic equipment/systems and subsystems for various Navy, Army, Air Force, special operations forces and other federal agencies. Two percent of the work will be done in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. … Boeing Co., St Louis, Mo., was awarded a $69.7 million contract which will provide for the QF-16 full scale aerial target basic contract. 691 ARSS, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Week in review (2/28 to 3/6)

John C. Stennis Space Center in South Mississippi has a new head honcho.

Patrick Scheuermann is the new director of Stennis Space Center, moving up from deputy director to replace Arthur "Gene" Goldman, who goes to Huntsville, Ala., as the new deputy director of Marshall Space Flight Center.

Before being named deputy director of Stennis, Scheuermann was associate director at the center and previously served as chief operating officer of NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

- Speaking of Michoud, Lockheed Martin expects to finish the last of 134 space shuttle external tanks by the end of June before shutting down the production line for the aluminum-lithium structures. What the future holds is still uncertain.

The government-owned fabrication facility in east New Orleans was scheduled to assemble the upper stage of the Ares I crew launch vehicle as well as assembly of the Orion crew vehicle. But the Obama administration has proposed canceling the Constellation Program of post-shuttle space vehicles.

That move by the administration has caused Louisiana put a hold on the remaining $46 million in previously approved money to help Michoud transition from the shuttle to Constellation. Louisiana previously allocated $102 million to help in the transition.

Despite the uncertainty over Constellation, the Lockheed Martin-led team developing the Orion crew exploration vehicle completed fabrication of the heat shield that protects the spacecraft and crew from the extreme temperatures of re-entry. The work was completed at Lockheed's composite development facility in Denver, Colo. The heat shield is to be affixed to the Orion ground test article being built at Michoud.

Joint Strike Fighter
The city of Valparaiso, Fla., and the Air Force finally settled the legal battle over the F-35. City residents have been concerned over the noise expected when Eglin opens the F-35 joint training center. The suit was filed over use of a runway close to the city of Valparaiso. The agreement has the Air Force using it only when necessary. The Air Force also agreed to set up a committee to address any future noise issues.

- The Pratt and Whitney F135 conventional takeoff and landing/carrier variant engine for the F-35 has received approval for operational use. Called initial service release, it indicates the engine meets all requirements for safety, reliability and performance. It’s now approved for low-rate initial production. The F-35 will be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as the military from eight foreign partners.

Aerial tanker
As expected, Boeing said during the week that it will offer a 767-based aerial refueling tanker for the Air Force's multibillion-dollar tanker competition. The 767 will have an updated digital flight deck and a fly-by-wire refueling boom. Boeing said the tanker would meet all the Air Force's 372 requirements and offered a low-risk manufacturing option.

There's no word yet on whether the Northrop Grumman/EADS team, which said the current rules favor the smaller Boeing plane, will bid. Northrop Grumman did say during the week that it's getting closer to a decision.

Just how much that will be influenced by EADS is unclear. But a source in Europe told Reuters during the week that EADS wants to bid, despite the odds. The Northrop Grumman/EADS team won the contract in February 2008, but it was overturned following a Boeing protest. The Northrop/EADS team wants to assemble the planes in Mobile, Ala.

- Also during the week, the Senate approved three Defense Department nominees whose confirmation had been blocked for weeks by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., amid concerns about an Air Force tanker project.

The commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., was permanent relieved of command during the week following an inquiry into alleged "inappropriate conduct." Capt. William P. Reavey was relieved by Rear Adm. Tim Alexander, commander of Navy Region Southeast, due to loss of confidence in Reavey's judgment and ability to command.

- Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans ranks next-to-last among 24 small American airports in customer satisfaction. That's according to a biennial survey released by J.D. Power and Associates. At least 100 passengers provided ratings for 27 attributes in six major categories: airport accessibility, baggage claim, check-in process, terminal facilities, security check and food and retail services.