Congress, industry buckle up for a busy September; Software for future weapons; Contractors in Afghanistan; and a lot more.

Buckle up, folks; it’s about to get busy. With the help of Caroline Houck, we’ll break September down for you, starting with Congress, whose members returns next week to a month of deadlines and high-priority items:

The debt ceiling hits Sept. 29, according to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Conservatives have already drawn battle lines and though Hill leaders have said there’s zero chance of a default, lifting it is never easy, particularly in the current political climate.

Shutdown watch. I’ve written my share of “the government is preparing for a shutdown” stories in recent years, and of course, it actually happened in 2013. So what’s up this time around? As usual, government funding runs out on Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year. That’s a Saturday in 2017, so any potential shutdown would start Sunday, and largely wouldn’t be felt until Monday, Oct. 2. A short-term continuing resolution is likely the best bet for avoiding a shutdown, and Pentagon leaders and contractors alike are already preparing for one.

The defense appropriations bill. The House passed a $658 billion Pentagon spending package at the end of July; but on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate’s defense approps bill hasn’t even made it out of committee yet. One other thing to watch: what does Congress do about the Budget Control Act spending caps, which, if not modified, will result in sequestration? “Not a single bill has been introduced that eliminates or changes the BCA caps,” David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said this week.

The defense authorization bill. The House passed its version before leaving for August recess. Tied up in health-care negotiations, the Senate did not. That said, the Senate version of the annual defense policy bill could make it to the floor as early as next week. Several hundred amendments have already been filed.

Lots and lots of industry conferences, including three on Sept. 6 alone. There’s the annual COMDEF conference, which focuses on U.S. and allied acquisition and budget issues. The Center for Strategic and International Studies is holding a daylong space conference with lots of the recently departed Obama administration political appointees. And lastly, Defense News has a conference, with congressional and defense speakers, including new Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. The annual Defence and Security Equipment International, better known as DSEI, is the second week of September in London, followed by the annual Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference the third week of the month. That enough for you? Rest up this Labor Day weekend. You’re gonna need it.

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Who Will Develop the Software for Future Weapons?

It’s no secret the Pentagon has been less than thrilled with the software problems that have stymied development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Software issues have also contributed to delays in building ground stations for new GPS satellites. The Air Force, in July, cancelled a project to upgrade its air operations center software after swelling cost increases. Noticing a trend?

The Pentagon and defense sector as a whole has had trouble recruiting software engineers, who largely opt for higher-paying jobs in the tech industry. (That’s not a new phenomenon.) The troubling trend led to former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s push to recruit more engineers.

Onstage at the Defense One Tech Summit in July, I talked with Col. Drew Cukor, whose team is mapping out the Pentagon’s broad efforts to harness artificial intelligence. Among other interesting aspects of his team’s work: it uses commercially available tech, not the highly proprietary type stuff typically found on major weapons. So, with this apparent shift to commercial tech under way, how does that affect the big defense companies?

So I asked Patrick Antkowiak, Northrop Grumman’s chief technology officer, and also: how does the defense industry compete with the tech industry to attract young software engineers?

“The nature of the software piece that we have is really complex and it has to work, it has to be trusted, it has to be secure,” Antkowiak replied. “That sort of raises the game over and above what would typically be viewed part of a commercial system to an extraordinary level. There’s a degree of complexity that we’re taking on in software that’s really exciting and compelling. Part of the answer is, what is it about that excitement that would bring the younger generation, the new graduates, into the aerospace and defense side. I see my company Northrop Grumman as really interesting for a couple of reasons. One is the mission. [A] very, very compelling mission for us — defense and security — and I think it has a lot of appeal on campus.”

The key is getting students hooked, Antkowiak said. He mentioned the company’s work on the James Webb space telescope, a “potential time machine” that will allow scientists to “go out and observe things 13.5 billion years ago, photons that have been traveling for 13.5 billion years. We’re going to capture them, process them and try to learn more about our universe. That kind of stuff is amazing and people don’t understand that about our company. Part of my mission is to lay it out some of those amazing things that we’re doing. I think we’re even more of a technology company than many technology companies.”

As for defense, Antkowiak mentioned the use of open mission systems and agile software development.

“That stuff is starting to happen more and more routinely,” he said. “The customer side is starting to recognize that more and more. And more of the program is now software-enabled, software defined, software capabilities. It’s important that we all grow together and address those. There’s things that we can learn from the commercial companies and things that are unique from the commercial companies that we have to take on.”

Contractors Dip in Afghanistan — For Now

No matter how many new U.S. troops Trump sends to Afghanistan, contractors will be needed to support Kabul’s armed forces. Case in point: Leidos last week scored a $728 million, three-year deal to work on helicopters and planes for the Afghan Air Force and Afghan Special Mission Wing. Still, the number of contractors in Afghanistan declined over the past year, from 26,435 in the third quarter of fiscal 2016 to 23,525 in the third quarter of fiscal 2017. Of those contractors, 9,436 are American citizens, 8,873 are third-country nationals, and 5,216 are Afghans, according to the latest breakdown from U.S. Central Command.

A Russian Arms-Export Report Worth Reading

In April, we told you that Russia’s arms export boom has stalled, based on a presentation by Sergey Denisentsev of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis and Technology, and a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Now Denisentsev and CSIS have put out a new report with lots of facts and figures about Russia’s role in the global arms market. Denisentsev writes: “One of the most important factors is the completion of next-generation weapons systems and their entry into service with the Russian armed forces. Specifically, much depends on the PAKFA fifth-generation fighter jet, the Armata main battle tank, and the S-500 SAM system. These systems, which represent a new level of technology, will help Russia to reboot its arms trade with its two main partners, China and India.”

Denied: Boeing, Bombardier Protest of Compass Call

The Government Accountability Office rejected separate protests by Boeing and Bombardier who contested an Air Force decision that allows L3 Technologies to choose a plane to replace the EC-130H Compass Call. GAO posted that it had denied the protests, but not released a decision summary? Why? “Boeing and Bombardier marked their initial protest filings as protected, and asked that GAO issue a protective order covering the protest,” Ralph White, managing associate general counsel for procurement law at GAO, tells us. Essentially, there’s proprietary data that the two companies presented in their protests that it doesn’t want made public. It typically takes GAO about two weeks to release a redacted version of its decision, White writes.

What does the Air Force think about the ruling? “We’re moving forward with the Compass Call Re-host as quickly as possible, to meet the demand of emerging threats and combatant commanders’ need for this critical capability,” Capt. Emily Grabowski, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email.

Boeing: “We’re disappointed in the Government Accountability Office’s decision to deny our protest of the Compass Call acquisition process. We continue to believe we have the best solution for this mission and that a fair and open competition would best serve both the warfighter and taxpayer,” spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson said.

Bombardier: “We are in disagreement with this decision. We are currently reviewing the details of the decision and examining our options. We strongly believe in our ability to deliver products that are ideally suited to elite military operations and also that the Compass Call re-host should be open to a fair and open competitive process to ensure that the Air Force gets the best airframe at the best value for taxpayers,” spokesman Nicolas Poirier-Quesnel said.

A Company Not Protesting a Contract?

Lockheed Martin. It “has accepted” the Air Force’s selection of Boeing and Northrop Grumman for deals to build parts and technology for new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. “We are proud of our proposal and believe it met all mission requirements,” Sydney Owens, a company spokeswoman, said.

Trump Says Finland is Buying F-18s. They’re Not.

Well, not yet anyway. The Finnish government was sent into damage control mode following a joint press conference between President Sauli Niinisto and Trump. During the briefing, Trump said: “One of the things that is happening is you’re purchasing large amounts of our great F-18 aircraft from Boeing and it’s one of the great planes, the great fighter jets.” Finland has F/A-18 Hornets and is expected to launch a competition next year to replace them with a new fighter jet. The Super Hornet is among the likely candidates.

Making Moves

Lockheed Martin named Stephanie Hill its senior vice president for corporate strategy and business development.

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