Saturday, January 7, 2017

Week in review (1/1 to 1/7)

For those who follow the aerospace and defense industry, one of the biggest question marks with the incoming administration is what will happen to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program?

We care in this region in part because Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home of the F-35 integrated training center and two reprogramming labs. And beyond that, we're pro-military for both political and economic reasons. So we care about keeping our nation second-to-none when it comes to the nation's defense.

Regarding the F-35, if you were to base your assessment of its future on tweets from the president-elect, you would see trouble ahead for the fifth-generation plane. Trump's clearly not a fan. Early on he said the plane was "not very good," then later, singled out the F-35 in another tweet where he said military costs are out of control, and he plans to save billions.

Then came this one: "Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35 I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!" That caused a lot of folks to scratch their heads and wonder if Trump understands the F/A-18 and F-35 are not in the same league. It's like hanging on to your old, trusty Nokia in an age dominated by smart phones (yes, I tried but finally succumbed).

It's simply not possible to take a late 1970-era plane and turn it into a 21st century stealthy aircraft. One is a Navy multi-role fighter that first saw combat in 1986 over Libya, the other an avionics-packed flying battle station that works with other assets as a holistic unit in a battle field against highly competent, tech-savvy opponents.

For those who think the F-35 is important and must be continued despite all its ongoing issues, there's reason to believe it will survive. Departing Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently said he believes all the work done to fix the troubled program is paying off.

He pointed out that in 2010 the program was in trouble, in danger of being canceled, after racking up $13.5 billion in cost overruns and a six-year delay. But after seven years of hard work on the government and industry sides, costs are coming down and the Marines and airmen beginning to operate the F-35B and F-35A say they are in awe of its capabilities. Carter said there are still challenges, but he said the F-35 is unequivocally the best fighter in the world. (Post)

Importantly, Carter's expected replacement, Retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has recently indicated his support of the program despite the tweets from the man who will be his boss. That's according to a Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who recently met with Mattis. He told the Hartford Courant newspaper that Mattis gave a "clear commitment" to the continuation of the F-35 program. Connecticut cares because that's where the engines for the F-35 are made by Pratt and Whitney.

Of course, Mattis still has to get a waiver to serve as defense secretary. But it does show he's an independent thinker willing to take a different approach from the boss. Whether the boss will listen to the advice of those around him is another matter entirely. We'll just have to wait and see.

In a story we had in the December issue of the Gulf Coast Aerospace Corridor Newsletter, we noted Trump's concern over government spending and his concern with the F-35. That was before Trump's tweet about the F/A-18 as a possible alternative.

But if anything, that tweet underscores the significance of a comment made by aerospace expert Richard Aboulafia of The Teal Group. He said in the article that he didn’t think the Trump team had a good handle on the F-35 program, and that once they got up to speed, they'll understand the unmatched role of the F-35. Aboulafia said that if Trump wants to spend money on top-of-the-line weapons systems, the F-35 is the only game in town. (Story)

I'm not blind to the real concerns raised about the costly program. A lot of critical issues still have to be addressed, but as has been said many times by many experts, any new program goes through development problems. In this case, procurement came before all the kinks were worked out.

It's also clear this program is far too entrenched – yes, too big to fail. It involves nearly every U.S. state and eight nations. Perhaps Trump might do well to do what he can to drive down the cost without jeopardizing the F-35's performance goals. Chalk this one up to lesson learned and focus on making sure we take care of getting the most bang for our bucks at the front end of any new program.

Southwest Airlines announced additional service to two airports in the region.

It will offer additional services and routes this summer at Pensacola International Airport (PNS). New, non-stop weekend service to Denver International Airport (DEN) will run June 3-August 14. Southwest is also renewing its seasonal service to both Kansas City International Airport (MCI) and Dallas Love Field (DAL) with an increase in frequency. (Post)

At Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) near Panama City, the company announced two new nonstop flights to Austin, Texas, and Chicago-Midway, bringing the number of nonstop and one-stop destinations available to more than a dozen. Enhanced nonstop service on Southwest begins in June with flights scheduled through the summer season. Southwest is also increasing flight frequency on routes to Nashville, Houston and Dallas throughout the summer season. (Post)

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