Saturday, August 20, 2011

Week in review (8/14 to 8/20)

The Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration plan to carve out between four and 10 "bubbles" in civilian airspace to test unmanned aerial systems. That's the word from Steve Pennington, executive director of the Defense Policy Board on Federal Aviation. (Story)

The test bubbles will provide the Department of Defense and the FAA with space to show that unmanned systems can fly in heavily-traveled commercial airspace in all conditions. That may be particularly important in light of the incident during the week when a 12-foot long Shadow drone with a 20-foot wingspan and a C-130 collided in Afghanistan.

The sites will not be co-located with existing DoD sites that have been cleared to fly unmanned systems in the United States, but the new airspace sites will likely butt up against those DoD-owned sites. DoD will begin preliminary site selection by the end of 2012, Pennington said.

It appears to me that this region is perfect for one of the sites, or perhaps more. South Mississippi has two locations cleared for unmanned flights. One is at Stennis Space Center near the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, and the other is in and around Moss Point, not far from the Mississippi-Alabama state line.

Unmanned systems also fly at Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida, which also has been a test site for cruise missiles for years. Considering the Gulf Coast also has ranges in the Gulf of Mexico, it almost appears to be a no-brainer that this region will be considered. And if the idea is to show that the drones can fly in heavily-traveled commercial airspace, this region fits the bill. There are commercial airports in New Orleans, Gulfport, Miss., Mobile, Ala., and Florida’s Pensacola, Eglin and Panama City. The region also has plenty of military flights.

We'll let you know how this search develops.

- While on the topic of unmanned systems, the Navy's MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which is built in part in Moss Point,, Miss., may soon head to sea with air-to-surface missiles. The drone, which recently finished its second deployment, will start carrying weapons in addition to its array of sensors used for surveillance missions. (Story)

And that seems to be increasingly important. A Fire Scout was shot down over Libya during a deployment, and had it been armed it might have been able to respond to a perceived threat. It will also give ground operators a change to engage targets of opportunity that might otherwise get away.

The Navy picked a laser-guided 70mm rocket, BAE Systems' Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, as the initial weapon because it has existing safety approval for deployment on ships. But Northrop Grumman will conduct a demonstration of Raytheon's Griffin, a 35-pount tube launched laser-guided mini-missile, later this month.

This wouldn't be a first for the Fire Scount. The Navy test-fired an armed version in 2005.

- Also during the week, the Pentagon approved the requirement for an "endurance upgrade" to the Fire Scout. That means the Navy likes Northrop Grumman's idea of using the proven Fire Scout systems on a larger airframe, in this case the Bell 407. The increased payload and range is designed to support special operations forces. (Story)

The program office evaluated the Boeing A160T Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters, but recommended using the Bell 407 airframe, Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager, said at the AUVSI International show in Washington.

The program office’s recommendation has yet to be endorsed by Navy leadership, but Northrop and Bell are already jointly developing an unmanned version of the civil Bell 407 light turbine helicopter, called the Fire-X, which first flew in December.

The MQ-8C will be developed within 24 months, with deployment in 2014. Plans to acquire 28 air vehicles over three years.

- Speaking of drones and Eglin, I mentioned above that cruise missiles have been tested in this region for years. Well on July 20 a Tomahawk was fired from the USS Normandy off the coast of south Florida, navigated through the Gulf of Mexico and hit a target at the Eglin Air Force Base weapons range. It marked the 500 test flights for the Tomahawk. (Story)

The cruise missile has been in service for more than 30 years, but Navy officials point out that testing and training of personnel is still essential. It can be launched from over 140 Navy ships and submarines and has been used in every major combat operation since Desert Storm in 1991. The 2,000th combat missile was recently launched against Libyan air defense systems.

The F-35 test fleet has been cleared for flight, but the Air Force's production aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., are still grounded, the Pentagon said during the week.

An Air Force safety board is continuing its investigation of the failure of the AF-4’s Integrated Power Package on Aug. 2, which led to the grounding of the fleet of 20 aircraft. Ground operations of the test fleet resumed Aug. 10.

Command change
Maj. Gen. Kenneth A. Merchant assumed command of the Air Armament Center from Maj. Gen. C.R. Davis Friday. Merchant's previous assignment was director at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., where he was director of Logistics, Headquarters, Air Mobility Command. Davis will assume command of the Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., Sept. 1, the same day he's promoted to lieutenant general. Also Friday, Col. David A. Harris, Vice Commander, Air Armament Center, pinned on the rank of brigadier general.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards announced its first contract to build a new ship from scratch at its facility in Mobile, Ala. Weeks Marine Inc. hired BAE to build a 356-foot-long dredging vessel. The contract is worth $85 million. … The Justice Department has accused Bollinger Shipyards Inc. of Lockport, La., of falsifying data that led the Coast Guard to contract with the firm to lengthen eight deepwater cutters, all of which turned out "unseaworthy and unusable." The suit seeks unspecified damages. Bollinger said the company has a spotless record for honest and fair dealings. … Local 441 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board after a failed attempt earlier this month to organize Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. Workers vote 613-367 against unionizing. … Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors, Moorestown, N.J., was awarded a $7 million option exercise modification to a previously awarded contract for management and engineering services to maintain and modify as necessary the design of DDG 51-class combat system compartments and topside arrangements, in support of the program executive officer Integrated Warfare Systems. Twenty-two percent of the work will be done in Pascagoula, Miss. … BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a steel profile processing system. BAE will use the money for an automated system for cutting and welding stiffening profiles to steel plates on ships. … Huntington Ingalls Industries, Pascagoula, Miss., was awarded an $11 million modification to previously awarded contract for research, development, test, and technical services for the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer. Eighty percent of the work will be done in Pascagoula, Miss., and 20 percent in Gulfport, Miss.