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.

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