When you think “Boeing,” you may picture airliners, like the 787 parked behind President Donald Trump during his visit to the firm’s Charleston production facility. Me, I tend to think of the F-15 fighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet, or even the venerable B-52 bomber.
But the more time I spend chatting with the firm’s defense executives, the more I find the conversation to shifting to topics other than aircraft. Last week, I grabbed coffee with Stu Voboril, senior director of global sales and marketing for Boeing’s Phantom Works.
Phantom Works, the company’s advanced defense research shop, doesn’t just handle things with wings, like Boeing’s nascent entry in the Air Force’s T-X training-jet competition. The 2,000-person unit also works on new designs for cutting-edge satellites, underwater drones, and more.
“Where other R&D [shops] for other companies tend to focus on just one domain … we literally do all future things in all those different [domains], from seabed to space,” Voboril said. “It allows you to get to touch the future in everything that is going on in a small, fast, agile way.”
One focus area, Vorobil said, is combining new manufacturing techniques with processes like 3D printing in the quest to speed up production.
“I think there will be things in the future that finally people will go ‘How in the heck was that even possible?’” he said. (Voboril wouldn’t disclose the specific manufacturing techniques, for competitive reasons, but Paul Rusnock, vice president and general manager of the firm’s satellite business, recently underscored the importance of 3D printing to manufacturing satellites.)
Phantom Works is also doing a lot of space-related work, particularly with unique payloads that will monitor orbital activities.
“We have an incredible capability in space modeling that I think is fairly unique,” he said. “That’s given us a lot of insight into future architectures. One real area in space that I’m pumped about is the whole battle management, command-and-control aspect… How do we watch what’s going on up there and how do we control that and manage through that.”
Voboril was visibly excited about one secret project, alluding it several times and promising a public announcement in the next two months.
“We had a really good win in that [space] domain last year that I think will get some visibility here,” he said. “That’s a big deal to us and our future … going to Mars and things related to going to Mars.”
He also discussed Boeing’s Echo Voyager unmanned submarine. In December, we told you about its potential to shake up the battlefield.
“The disruptive payload stuff underwater is kind of wild,” Voboril said. “A lot of missions that you think traditionally would be done in other domains are now migrating to under sea. That’s been driven by a lot of really good ideas and thoughts coming out of the government along with us working together. I think you’ll see an hear more of that this year. A big focus for us in that.”
And because we can’t write about Boeing and not talk about planes: Voboril also said Phantom Works is exploring technologies that will be on the fighter jets of the future.
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Building high-tech stuff, faster
Boeing’s hardly the only company searching for the next frontier in manufacturing. This week at the IDEX arms expo in Abu Dhabi, Exechon unveiled the XMini, a carbon-fiber robot that can fit inside places not accessible to traditional machines. A joint venture between Lockheed Martin, UAE-based Injaz National and Sweden-based Tecgrant AB, Exechon is setting up a manufacturing facility in Abu Dhabi where they plan to build these robots for the aerospace, defense, and automotive sectors. In a promotional video that shows the XMini in action, Exechon CEO Kalle Neumann,, said the company hopes to sell hundreds or even thousands of the robots.
While we’re on the subject, the U.S. Air Force Research Lab and UK-based OC Robotics have developed a snake-like robot that could help aircraft maintainers inspect hard-to-see areas. More on that, here.
What If NATO Really Spent 2% on Defense?
Last week, Jim Mattis became the latest U.S. Defense Secretary to slam the 23 NATO allies that don’t spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. If you’re keeping score at home, only the U.S., U.K., Estonia, Poland and Greece meet the target — but what if everyone did?
It could mean NATO’s annual spend would jump by $100 billion, according to Cowen and Company analyst Roman Schweizer. And that could mean an additional $20 billion in equipment and arms ordered from American and European defense firms.
Schweizer writes in a note to investors that “we would expect this aspirational plan (potentially with gradual annual increases) to be rolled out around President Trump’s May visit to NATO. We believe NATO spending will continue to creep up.”
If that happens, what would the money buy? “We would expect a blend of manpower, R&D, procurement and operations and maintenance. We expect both European and U.S. firms would benefit,” Schweizer writes. Arms could include items like tactical fighters, helicopters, cargo planes, special mission aircraft, missile defenses, precision bombs and missiles and drones.
Lessons from Eastern Ukraine
Elsewhere in Europe, the head of Ukraine’s defense industry consortium has called for the “development of non-lethal restraint systems.” Speaking at a defense conference in Amsterdam, UkrOboronProm director general Roman Romanov said arms manufacturers can learn lots from the battles between Russian and Ukrainian fighters in Eastern Ukraine.
“Fundamentally new defense systems will allow avoiding losses. We call to initiating of a political dialogue on changing global defense system,” he said. “We see the need for formulating objectives for global defense corporations on developing new non-lethal and non-destructive means of [restraint] and blocking of misconducting military-minded groups and individuals. Today’s modern technology provides effective means using new conceptual principles and can implement this idea.”
BAE Systems CEO Ian King will soon retire, to be replaced on July 1 by current COO Charles Woodburn. King will step down just shy of nine years as CEO of the firm. Woodburn came to BAE last May, after more than 20 years in senior management positions in the oil and gas industry. The press release announcing the move notes Woodburn’s annual salary will be £875,000. (I can’t remember ever seeing an American firm’s press release mentioning an executive’s salary.)
Finally, Darren Edwards was named vice president and managing director of Boeing Defence Australia, the company’s largest international subsidiary. He replaces Ken Shaw, who had been appointed vice president of supply chain for Boeing Global Services, the firm’s new maintenance division.