Futurism roars back to AFA; Meet Sikorsky’s defense chief; High-tech computers eyed for new spy planes; and more.

Time was, a giant defense-industry show like the Air Force Association’s annual conference would be rife with concept models of aircraft, munitions, and other gear not too far removed from a sci-fi flick. But miniature representations of potential future weaponry have been on the wane (though not altogether absent) as budgets tighten and the Pentagon searches for ways to buy arms more cheaply.

And yet, defense firms were showing off all sorts of far-out concepts at this week’s Air, Space and Cyber conference, the annual gathering of airpower leaders and defense executives in National Harbor, Maryland, the faux city just outside the Washington Beltway. Perhaps industry has grown impatient with complaints from Pentagon acquisition undersecretary Frank Kendall that the U.S. is losing its technological edge to the likes of China, and has set out to prove him wrong.

Lockheed Martin offered a black flying wing, akin to the B-2 bomber, but larger, with a T-tail and two massive engines. (One aerospace expert said the model’s turbofans, which probably don’t exist yet, would likely be the largest ever built.) Lockheed officials said cargo and tanker planes of the future could look like this.

Boeing outfitted models of three 737 commercial jetliners with different types of communications equipment that could replace the Air Force’s Compass Call, JSTARS, and Rivet Joint surveillance planes. One of them was based on the 737 Max, a variant so recent it hasn’t yet entered commercial service.

Few of these projects have Pentagon funding, but firms are spending their own money to show that that they’re thinking ahead. Cobham, for example, is building special radars for drones that could help them detect and avoid other aircraft in the sky.

It’s clear the Pentagon’s push for new technology, reflected by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s Third Offset, is taking root — inside the defense industry anyway. The question that now remains: will there be any money down the road to buy new stuff?


Here is the Defense One Global Business Brief by Marcus Weisgerber, your weekly source for all things future-of-the-business-of-defense. Send your tips, comments, and serious thoughts to mweisgerber@defenseone.com, or hit me up on Twitter: @MarcusReports. You can check out the Global Business Brief archive here. And tell your friends to subscribe!

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Sikorsky’s Defense Chief, One-on-One

The helicopter maker that became part of Lockheed Martin last year is running faster than ever, says Sam Mehta, president of Sikorsky Defense Systems & Services. He chatted with Defense One on the sidelines of the annual AFA conference about a military helicopter portfolio that includes the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter, Marine Corps’ VH-92 Presidential Helicopter, and the Army’s search for a helicopter of the future.

Mehta pointed to Sikorsky’s contract to deliver its first new HH-60 to the Air Force in 2020. The aircraft is required to arrive within 75 months of the order — but the firm gets a bonus if it comes six months early.

“We’re tracking very well toward the 69 months,” Mehta said. “The idea is not to rely upon the contract schedule, the idea is to try to get this program and these helicopters pulled left as far as possible. Nobody on my team recognizes or understands 75 months. They all know they’re being measured to a 69-month schedule to achieve early deliveries.”

Sikorsky’s defense chief says his firm, whose acquisition by Lockheed Martin was finalized in November, could build the aircraft even faster than that. “We can take advantage of a very hot supply chain that we have in order to pull parts and components left. We also have the manufacturing capacity and the final assembly capacity to be able to do that.”

Another project where Mehta says the helicopter maker is working faster: the Army’s Future Vertical Lift project. “It may be the only area in this program where we fundamentally agree with our competitor,” he said. Bell, who is competing against Sikorsky and its partner Boeing, has also said it could build an aircraft faster. “We’re ready to bring the schedule left. I think we’ve done a fair amount of risk reduction with our X2 technology demonstrator,” Mehta said. “We’re flying the S-97 Raider right now.…We think we could be well-positioned for an aircraft with mature technologies, a proven flight system, all the data and analysis that comes with it to be able to compete as a product offering, not only as a technology, as early as 2020.”

The Army doesn’t plan to field this new helicopter tech, which will replace the Black Hawks and Apaches until the 2030s, a timeframe that has drawn some criticism.

Human-Machine Collaboration

The Air Force wants to buy a new plane and radar to track people, vehicles and aircraft to replace the E-8C JSTARS. But it wants that plane to be smaller, its crew slimmed down, and its computers far smarter and more capable. Boeing, which is leading one of three teams competing for the contract, brought to AFA a semitrailer outfitted like a 737 with computer consoles. The new computers, said one employee on the project who flew missions in the back of an E-8C, are far more advanced than those in the planes now. They can better identify targets and even suggest the best type of weapon to use in a strike.

Foreign Sales Wrapup

The U.S. late Wednesday cleared a $1.9 billion sale of four Boeing KC-46 tankers to Japan. Japan already has four Boeing KC-767 tankers. In case you’re wondering, still no word on whether the U.S. approved the much-anticipated, fighter jet deals to Kuwait and Qatar with a combined $7 billion.