Saturday, February 19, 2011

Week in review (2/13 to 2/19)

An announcement will be made soon, perhaps as early as next week, on which company the Air Force has selected to build 179 aerial tankers. If Boeing wins, workers and politicians in Washington and Kansas will celebrate. If EADS wins, workers and politicians in Mobile, Ala., and the immediate Gulf Coast will put on party hats.

But be forewarned. The losing side will probably protest. About the only scenario where a protest won't occur is if the Air Force splits the contract. Don't count out that possibility.

During the past week, the Pentagon's inspector general's office finished a review of an Air Force mix-up that sent details of Boeing's bid to EADS and vice versa, and found no reason to further investigate. The IG said the Air Force handled the mistake in compliance with federal law. Also during the week, EADS North America Chairman Ralph Crosby said the company had lowered its bid price the tanker. Boeing, for its part, had earlier said its pricing was "aggressive."

Boeing is offering a version of its 767, and EADS a version of its Airbus A330. If Boeing wins, the planes will be made in Washington and Kansas. If EADS wins, the planes will be assembled in a still-to-be-built plant at Mobile's Brookley Aeroplex. Boeing isn't keen on seeing its archrival build an aircraft manufacturing facility in the United States. EADS already has a helicopter manufacturing site in Mississippi, and Boeing doesn't want to see further inroads.

But that's the nature of the global aerospace field. Companies from one section of the world team up with companies from another to compete for military and civilian projects. They're all establishing footholds in markets where they hope to sell their products.

The Gulf Coast region is just one of the areas of the world where a lot of international players are looking, and EADS isn't the first and won't be the last. Selex Galileo in South Mississippi is part of Italy's Finmeccanica, and ST Aerospace Mobile is part of Singapore's ST Engineering. A Chinese conglomerate, AVIC, has purchased Teledyne Continental in Mobile. We also have the United Kingdom's Rolls-Royce testing jet engines in South Mississippi and BAE Systems in Northwest Florida.

While the tanker project would be a big win for the Gulf Coast region, the region is already a major player in aerospace, both for companies with U.S. roots and companies with foreign roots. And that's likely to continue, with or without an EADS tanker plant.

Unmanned systems
The Navy is requesting funds in fiscal year 2012 to buy the first 12 Fire-X unmanned helicopters. Called MQ-8C, Fire-X is based on the Bell 407, a larger version of the Fire Scout, MQ-8B, which uses the Schweizer S-333 airframe.

That the Navy would be interested in not surprising. The Fire Scout has already demonstrated its capabilities, so a larger version made sense. In December, Northrop Grumman and Bell flew the company-funded Fire-X demonstrator to show that a new airframe could be integrated into the unmanned architecture developed for the Fire Scout. The MQ-8C is to be an engineering change proposal to the existing system, using the existing avionics, payloads, command-and-control links and ground control station.

But that doesn't mean the Fire Scout will be squeezed out. The Navy Department's fiscal 2012 budget calls for 12 Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, nine more than originally planned. By 2016 the Navy plans to purchase 57, up from the 31 included in earlier budgets. The Navy requested a baseline of $161.4 billion for fiscal 2012, up $800 million from last year's proposal. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

The House during the week approved an amendment that would eliminate funding for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a move that would contribute an additional $450 million to the estimated $61 billion in federal spending cuts that House Republicans have proposed for the rest of the current fiscal year. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the alternative engine as unnecessary and wasteful. The second F-35 engine was to be built by General Electric and Rolls Royce. The primary engine is built by Pratt & Whitney. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home of the F-35 training center.

The president's proposed $18.7 billion budget for NASA in fiscal year 2012 reflects a commitment to long-term job growth, said Mississippi's Stennis Space Center Director Patrick Scheuermann. "As in the past, the unique test facilities and technical expertise at the John C. Stennis Space Center will continue to play a key role in the development and certification of new rocket propulsion systems," said Scheuermann. He added that the center's Applied Science and Technology Project Office will support essential scientific research while managing the Gulf of Mexico Initiative for NASA's Applied Sciences Program.

The lineup of performers and aircraft is growing for the Angels Over the Bay Air Show at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The March 19-20 show will celebrate the 70th anniversary of Keesler. Headlining the show is the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. The Army Golden Knights parachute team, which opened the Thunder on the Bay air show at Keesler in 2009, will be back again.

Defense contractor DRS Technologies has laid off 38 people from its Fort Walton Beach, Fla., location in the wake of a staff reassessment. Like with other defense companies, the size of the workforce ebbs and flows based on contracts. The Fort Walton Beach operation specializes in communications, unmanned aircraft and border security products. DRS, based in New Jersey, still has 850 workers in Fort Walton Beach.

BAE Systems Technology Solutions & Services Inc., Rockville, Md., was awarded a $7.7 million modification to a previously awarded cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to exercise an option for the procurement of 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.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: VT Halter Marine won a $144 million contract to build a second carrier vessel for a Hawaii company. .. The upper part of a mast on the Northrop Grumman-built destroyer USS Gravely broke off last weekend during routine operations.

Advanced materials: BASF SE will cut 250 of the 700 employees and contractors at its McIntosh, Ala., chemical plant over the next two years.