Saturday, November 5, 2011

Week in review (10/30 to 11/5)

The news from some bases in the Gulf Coast region during the week was jarring. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will see the closing of the Air Armament Center, and the 96th Air Base Wing is folding into the 46th Test Wing. Some 351 positions are going away.

At nearby Hurlburt Field, Fla., home of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, 100 civilian support positions are being cut, and in Panama City, Fla., Tyndall Air Force Base expects to lose between 115 and 120 civilian positions. In Mississippi, Keesler Air Force Base, a major technical training center, 68 civilian positions are being eliminated. It was just two months ago that Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss., said it would eliminate NCMB 7 in September 2012.

If you're surprised by all of this, you simply haven't been paying attention. The Pentagon has been saying for months that cuts would be coming and that priorities are shifting. This is only the first round. More changes will be coming in a few months, then beyond that as well.

And by "beyond that" I mean the possibility of another base realignment and closure round in 2017, if not earlier. And it's BRAC that's the real bone-chiller. In that process, bases are shut down and assets and operations relocated. Hundreds of installations have been closed in five BRAC rounds that began in 1989. The last one was in 2005.

The Gulf Coast region has not been immune. The Naval Aviation Depot at Naval Station Pensacola, Fla., was eliminated by BRAC 1993. The same BRAC round also got Naval Station Mobile, Ala., created during the 1980s fleet buildup. Naval Station Pascagoula, Miss., lasted until BRAC 2005.

Just this year Naval Air Station Pensacola said goodbye to the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, which moved to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. That move was dictated by BRAC 2005.

If you want to know just how painful a base closing can be, you don't need to look any further than Mobile, Ala., which lost Brookley Air Force Base during the 60s. It took a long time to recover, but today the city has the Brookley Aeroplex, which remains heavily involved in aviation-related activities and was the site where EADS would have built Air Force tankers had it won the contract.

This military's current streamling and the future BRAC makes me think of dodge ball – the more players that are eliminated, the better your chance of being the target of the next ball. It may be more important than ever for this region to take stock in what we have and fully understand what's crucial for the 21st century military and what's at risk. While local groups and politicians will be protecting what's in their own back yard, it would also be wise to add regional protection to the mix. That would provide a lot more political clout, where an attack on one is an attack on all, so to speak.

The military, aviation and non-aviation alike, is an $18 billion pillar of this region’s economy. The military's activities in the region are broad and involve every military branch. There's aviation training, school houses, including electronic and cyber warrior training, laboratories, land and water ranges, operational units and it's home to one of the nation’s four Air National Guard combat readiness training centers. A dozen bases in the region have aviation functions, and there are three commands. Contractors in the region were awarded $47 billion from the military between 2000 and 2010 - some of the work done here, some done outside the region.

Three bases in this region are listed by DoD as among the highest in replacement value. Eglin Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Pensacola and Keesler Air Force Base have a combined replacement value of $8.6 billion. Eglin and NAS Pensacola are among the top three in value in all of Florida, and Keesler is the most valuable in Mississippi.

But that’s no guarantee.

"I don't think anybody can call themselves BRAC-proof,” said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Merchant, commander of Eglin’s Air Armament Center, during his talk with reporters. And that's from a man who has been assigned to Eglin three times in his career and is quite familiar with its considerable capabilities.

What's really crucial for the long-term outlook for any base is retaining capabilities that set it apart. Eglin, home of the F-35 training center, in 2010 built a $300 million research facility called the United States Reprogramming Laboratory, designed to fine-tune the electronic warfare capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

But it's the longtime role as weapons developer and tester that really sets Eglin apart. Merchant said that even with the loss of the AAC, Eglin will remain the Center of Excellence for aerial weapons acquisition and testing.

 "I think Eglin is postured very well for the future. When you look at the growth we've had recently in terms of the 7th Special Forces group coming in, some of the other activities like the F-35 training mission … I think we're pretty well postured," he said.

He pointed out that Eglin's Armament Laboratory, part of the Air Force Research Lab, will stay on station, and that means the "science piece of the operation" will remain in place. And the 46th Test Wing is not only staying, but expanding its role. Thus, he said, "the enterprise stays the same."

In fact, Merchant's second hat at Eglin, the Air Force program executive officer for weapons, will remain and become the leadership position at what will become Eglin's Armament Directorate. And that's significant. The base spends $600 million to $700 million every year on R&D, and Merchant said the intention is to keep at around that level, though less money will be available for development.

"Eglin has a great reputation as being the center of excellence for weapons acquisition, and test, and we want to maintain that," said Merchant. "We've got to make sure that we do the right things strategically to keep our workforce strong, healthy, and that we're prepared for the requirements of the Air Force in the future, and that we're able to procure and develop and test the weapons systems that will come in the future.”

The expanding role of the 46th Test Wing, which will become the installation manager and be headed by a one-star next October, is a far cry from what was being suggested for the 46th as recently 2006. Back then the Air Force considered trimming the 46th and moving it to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Politicians got together and scuttled that, and now that seems particularly fortuitous.

So while the news about the cuts are hard to take, especially at a time when the jobless rate is high, the important lesson that needs to be taken from this is that the Gulf Coast has a military infrastructure, aerospace and non-aerospace alike, that can't be taken for granted. Leaders of this region need to take every step possible, including a regional approach, to protect what's here and, in fact, to go after what's not here. The best defense is a good offense.

And now for some other Gulf Coast aerospace-related news from the past week:

NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center, Miss., this week will be test firing a J-2X rocket engine. The J-2X engines will be used by NASA's Space Launch System, which will carry the Orion spacecraft beyond Earth orbit.

Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne is developing the J-2X for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The SLS rocket engines will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include the J-2X engine for the upper stage and RS-25D/E engines, the Space Shuttle Main Engines, for the core stage.

SSC is involved in testing both of those engines, and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will be building some of the SLS structures.

- Boeing said early last week that it plans to consolidate its Commercial Crew program office, manufacturing and operations at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Boeing, in partnership with Space Florida, will use the Orbiter Processing Facility-3 to manufacture, assemble, and test the company's Crew Space Transportation spacecraft.

The 15-year use permit with Space Florida is the latest step Kennedy is making as the center transitions from a historically government-only launch complex to a multi-user spaceport. Boeing has multiple operations in the Gulf Coast region.

The Air Force secretary and his chief of staff have been asked to decide what to do about a disagreement over when F-35 flight training should begin at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's top official for weapons testing, thinks the fall target date should be delayed by 10 more months of development.

But Lt. Gen. Thomas Owen, who oversees aircraft development for the Air Force, and Vice Adm. David Venlet, who oversees the F-35 program, said changing plans would drive up the program's cost. It boils down to whether the kinks in the F-35 system have been worked out.

Gilmore said the JSF team at Edwards Air Force Base racked up 1,000 hours in F- 35As, but historically flight training didn't begin until 2,000 to 5,000 hours of monitored flight tests. Right now the F-35 experiences in-flight problems three times higher than it would after reaching maturity.

Six F-35s have been delivered to Eglin, which will train pilots for all F-35 variants.

- Pratt & Whitney during the week was awarded a $75 million contract for studies associated with the F135 propulsion system. That includes engineering, programmatic, and logistics tasks related to the Joint Strike Fighter F135 propulsion system.

Among other things, the company will look into the feasibility, practicality, desirability, or supportability of design changes for the propulsion system, support equipment, and government furnished property; operational readiness and reliability; cost and weight reductions; logistics site surveys; training system analysis; modeling and simulation activities; campaign analysis; and the determination of the feasibility of integrating changes for purchaser-unique requirements.

The Transportation Security Administration started using its new Advance Imaging Technology machines during the week at Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

TSA officers have been training on the two AIT machines over the past few weeks. Passengers who chose to opt out of going through the AIT will be subjected to alternative screening methods, which will include a pat-down by a TSA screener.

- Northwest Florida Regional Airport's terminal expansion construction is slightly behind schedule but expected to be completed under budget, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

The expansion of the airport that serves the Fort Walton Beach area adds two jet bridges to the terminal and two additional ground boarding gates. The expansion also includes new office space for the Transportation Security Administration, replacing the trailers they now use.

GE footprint
GE Aviation broke ground on a 300,000 square-foot advanced manufacturing plant in Auburn, Ala. It will produce precision, super-alloy machined parts for GE jet engines that will power future commercial and military aircraft, and also to support the fleet of GE jet engines already in service.

Site construction is set to begin Monday and the facility is scheduled to open in 2012. Auburn was selected in part because of its access to skilled workforce and proximity to Alabama's university system.

GE Aviation has become a growing factor in the Gulf Coast region. It's building a composite parts plant in Hattiesburg, Miss., and also operates a composites engine parts facility in Batesville, Miss.

Raytheon Co., Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $9.3 million contract modification to procure additional Griffin missiles in support of U.S. Special Operations Command. The following Griffin missiles are being purchased via this modification: 70 Griffin Block II A all up rounds, and 21 Griffin Block II A telemetry rounds. Air Armament Center Contracting, Advanced Programs Division, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Speegle Construction Inc., Niceville, Fla., was awarded a $24.6 million contract to provide for the construction of a Special Operation Forces
Operation and Training Facility and an Unmanned Aerial Support Squad Operations Facility at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.