Saturday, January 8, 2011

Week in review (1/2 to 1/8)

When it comes to defense spending, the Gulf Coast region is all ears. And that was no doubt the case when Defense Secretary Robert Gates during the week announced some additional spending cuts.

Before I go into detail about the "efficiencies" announced by Gates, let's make it perfectly clear why Pentagon spending is so important to the Gulf Coast region. The most obvious reason is the wealth of military bases and variety of activities, but it goes well beyond that.

In Panama City, Fla., there's air dominance training at Tyndall Air Force Base and littoral warfare research at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. There's weapons development at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., pilot and flight officer training at Naval Air Station Pensacola and Whiting Field, Fla.

There's electronics training at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., including the hot field of cyber training. That cyber training and "information dominance" is also taught at Corry Station, Fla., and Hurlburt Field, Fla., which is also the home of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

In Mississippi, there's a major Air National Guard air combat training center, which uses not only the Gulf of Mexico training range, but a huge Army National Guard training complex at Camp Shelby, south of Hattiesburg.

At NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss., there's the Naval Oceanographic Office and Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, which supply crucial data to warfighters in the field. And there's also special boat warfare and SEALS training done at Stennis. In Gulfport, Miss., is the home of the East Coast Seabees. For an overview on the military in South Mississippi, click here.

But the bases are just a part of the military-industrial footprint in the Gulf Coast. There are a host of defense contractors, including the big boys like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, involved in a variety of activities. Northrop Grumman builds warships in Pascagoula, Miss., and unmanned aerial vehicles in Moss Point, Miss. And Austal USA is building littoral combat ships, in Mobile, Ala.

And we also have a lot of smaller specialized contractors making crucial products for the military. Seemann Composites in Gulfport is making composite parts for Virginia-class submarines, United States Marine Inc., is building special operations boats and Avalex Technologies in Pensacola makes aircraft displays and digital mapping systems. And that's just to name a few.

On top of that, there are hundreds upon hundreds of companies from Louisiana to Florida that rely on contracts with the military to provide everything from lawn care to linen services and construction work. And did I mention the veterans and military retirees? They also care about Pentagon spending.

So it's safe to assume a lot of folks were paying attention when Gates announced a series of moves designed to save the Pentagon billions over the next five years by reducing overhead and cutting excess and troubled programs.

Now for a few details on what Gates announced.

It might be best to consider Gates' moves pre-emptive. Gates and the rest of the nation's military leadership understand that military spending, which accounts for a fifth of the federal budget, is no longer a sacred cow. A lot of players see that budget as ripe for cuts.

The military already has carried out a directive Gates issued in May to find $100 billion in savings over the next five years by trimming low-priority programs, thinning command structures and reducing Pentagon overhead. That was fine, but Gates was told by the White House to come up with additional cuts over the next five years. And he did.

Gates said he would slash the number of private military contractors by nearly a third over the next three years, maintain a freeze on civilian salaries and raise health-care premiums for military retirees and their families.

And both the Army and Marine Corps will shrink. The Army must trim the number of active duty by 27,000 and the Marines have to cut back by 15,000 to 20,000. The Army has about 569,000 soldiers and the Marines some 202,000 Marines on active duty. Gates also said he would cut the number of generals and admirals from about 900 to 800.

While some programs are being cut or revamped, others will be given more emphasis. Benefiting will be a program to build a new long-range bomber for the Air Force, ships for the Navy and a modernized Abrams for the Army.

One of the most closely watched programs is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That's of high interest to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., which is the home of the JSF training center. The Air Force will buy more simulators for F-35 air crew training, shift $4.6 billion to F-35 development and reduce to 325 the number of plans that will be bought between 2012 and 2016. That's 124 fewer planes.

In addition, the Marine Corps short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 is being placed on a two-year probation because of testing problems, putting the Marine variant to the back of the overall JSF production sequence.

So what will the overall impact be for the Gulf Coast region? There are so many bases, so may contractors and so many programs, it will take time to try to gauge the full impact.

Now it's time for a recap of some of the aerospace-specific stories that came down the pike during the week.

A Pratt and Whitney F100-PW-220 engine recently powered its first biofuel test flight of an Air Force F-15 Eagle at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. This flight test, powered by alternative jet fuel, comes on the heels of engine ground testing earlier this year at Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tennessee.

The Air Force's goal is to acquire half of its domestic jet fuel requirements from alternate sources by 2016. This is Pratt and Whitney's second military engine to successfully complete ground and flight tests using biofuels. A C-17 Globemaster III powered by four Pratt and Whitney F117 engines completed testing in August.

- NASA has set Dec. 14 as the target launch date for Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Commercial Orbital Transportation System cargo demonstration mission. The company says it continues to make progress toward attaining safety clearance for the mission, in which its Cygnus spacecraft will dock with the International Space Station.

Tests of the Aerojet AJ26 engine that will power the first stage also continue at NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss., where engineers are preparing for a third hot-fire test of the engine following earlier runs in November and December. "Every month we'll be bringing another AJ26 through Stennis," said Carl Walz, Orbital's vice president of human spaceflight operations.

- Pratt and Whitney's F135 engine used in the vertical take-off and landing version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter passed a testing milestone known as initial service release. That means the engine is now certified as the production configuration. The company received initial service release for the conventional take off and landing/carrier variant (CTOL/CV) in February 2010. The Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 will be used by the Marine Corps.

Pensacola, Fla., is celebrating a century of naval aviation, with a kickoff and party slated for Jan. 20 at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Other activities during the year include Aviation Week in May with the arrival of the USS Iwo Jima and a special performance by the Blue Angels flight demonstration team. The Blue Angels will also perform at Pensacola Beach in July.

- The Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team arrived early last week at Naval Air Facility El Centro, Calif., the team's winter training facility. The team is based at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., but does its winter training in California. That training wraps up in mid-March. The team will perform in more than 37 shows this year, with the season ending in Pensacola Nov. 12.

- The National Flight Academy received a $1.7 million grant buy 42 flight simulators. The grant is from the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust. The $26.5 million flight academy is being built next to the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. The academy is designed to interest young people in science, technology, engineering and math careers, including aerospace.

Louisiana's chief economic development official told the Press Club in Baton Rouge during the week that several entities are interested in locating at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. But Stephen Moret declined to name names. Michoud is NASA's huge manufacturing facility that built the external tanks for the Space Shuttle. At its height it had 5,000 workers, but now has 1,000 as Lockheed Martin ends its shuttle work. "We will attract thousands of private-sector jobs," said Moret, secretary of the Department of Economic Development. Turbine-maker Blade Dynamics announced last year it would set up shop at Michoud.

EADS North American Defense, Arlington, Va., was awarded a $52.5 million firm-fixed-price contract to provide for 12 UH-72A Light Utility Helicopters, 12 Airborne Radio Communication systems and two Engine Inlet Barrier Filters. Work will be performed in Columbus, Miss., with an estimated completion date of April 30, 2012.