The Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space exposition is probably the most diverse trade show in the U.S. On the exhibit hall floor, there’s a full-range of technology on display from ships, to helicopters, electronics and more. (Full disclosure: Defense One is a media partner with the conference, and provided the livestream for its Days One, Two, and Three.)
The place was packed with all sorts of new types of surface and subsurface drones, but from the sight of things, the most attention seemed to go toward the three companies competing to build a flying tanker drone for the Navy.
The exhibit hall was larger than that of the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September, but the number of sailors at this year’s edition was visibly low. At times, you could turn 360 degrees and not spot a single U.S. Navy uniform — even as you spotted one of the numerous delegations of foreign sailors.
Lots of folks were asking why Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, did not speak at Sea-Air-Space. He came to Tuesday night’s VIP dinner, but sent Vice CNO Adm. Bill Moran to speak on Monday because of conflicts from meetings with the other Joint Chiefs and combatant commanders in Washington this week, according to a Navy spokesman. His meetings, which come as tensions rise over Syria, included a White House confab with President Trump on Monday evening.
The lack of Navy presence at the event comes as senior officials try to balance two conflicting messages: one that restricts the public appearances of senior military officials and civilians public appearances and another that encourages wider communication with defense contractors.
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, earlier this year spoke about the value of attending trade shows. “Those shows really bring a lot of the government and military folks out,” he said. “That’s how they start to nurture those relationships.”
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One-on-One: Boeing Phantom Works’ New Boss
Mark Cherry took over Boeing’s advanced research and development business — better known as Phantom Works — about five months ago. The vast majority of the stuff he oversees is classified or proprietary, but the company recently pulled the veil off of a new tanker drone it’s pitching to the Navy. Cherry was previously the president and chief operating officer of Aurora Flight Sciences, which Boeing acquired in November. We chatted about his new role at the Sea-Air-Space conference this week.
Q. What’s the big difference between your past job and your current job?
A. There are a few differences. One is [that] the breadth and depth of capability that Phantom Works has is just more than what we could do at Aurora. At Aurora, we were focused on robotics; we were focused on turning aircraft into robotic systems that could basically support warfighters, really any customer. And then we were a Tier-1 aerostructure supplier. At Phantom Works, we are focused from seabed to space. We’re working on customer sets across the board and it’s a much deeper portfolio of technology than we had at Aurora. The things that are the same is [that] the folks and the team have a passion for innovation, a passion for technology, a passion for making a difference.
Q. Aurora was known for doing things faster than Boeing. What are some lessons you are bringing over?
A. One of the things we’ve prided ourselves on was to work in prototyping, to use a lot of model and simulation that moves to prototyping. That’s something that we worked really heavily in Aurora. What you hear is the defense infrastructure talking a lot more about prototyping, a lot more about doing experiments, trying things. There’s a lot of benefits in doing that. One [benefit] that’s not necessarily totally obvious, is: taking your teams and your people through design processes, through flight processes, fast and multiple times is huge, from basically an experience base. If you could have a 28-year-old engineer who’s gone through five or six flight readiness reviews before they’re 30, that is huge in terms of what they’re going to bring when you actually have production systems and you’re actually doing that for a “real customer.” We did that a lot at Aurora, where we gave our engineers the autonomy to be able to do design, to do manufacturing as well as prototyping. We thought that is a big difference and it helped us a from a speed perspective as well.
Q. Boeing has used prototyping for its T-X and MQ-25 bids. Is there a company-wide decision to do more of it?
A. On prototyping, we are working to act as one Boeing. We are working to sharpen [and] define what we’re doing. That means taking a look at paradigms and processes and really looking at what makes sense. I think Phantom Works has an excellent foundation. Darryl [Davis, the former head of Phantom Works] did a great job in terms of experience base and lean forward and [build an MQ-25 prototype]. We’re extremely happy that we have [that aircraft] right now because it’s going to position us for the MQ-25 competition extremely well. I think T-X is another example of where we’re positioned extremely well because we took that risk. We’re not afraid of taking risk where it makes sense for our customers and for overall strategy.
Q. Looking out, say, three to five years, what do you want people to think about when they think of Phantom Works?
A. We want to be seen as the team that mature the technologies and got us to a place where we are capturing franchises, shaping ecosystems and, more importantly, satisfying the needs of our key customers.
Q. How can Phantom Works play a role in commercial derivative airliners down the road?
A. It’s our job to mature the technologies that will inform future franchises. You think about the cool, sexy MQ-25, right? That’s really neat stuff. But what’s enabling that? Things like manufacturing technologies, things like design technologies. Those are the things that can be brought to bear that are applicable not only on the MQ, but they’re applicable on really any product. That’s a key area that we’ve put a lot of time and effort in because those are things that aren’t the flashy stuff … but it’s a key enabler across the board.
Companies Thinking Up Missions for New Navy Drone
The primary mission of the MQ-25A Stingray is refueling carrier-based aircraft, but the three companies vying to build the Navy drone — Lockheed, Boeing, and General Atomics — are designing in room to grow. In one part of a Lockheed video touting its proposal, the drone’s fuel tank and refueling pod are replaced by two bombs. Company officials said that demonstrated a “path for growth” for capabilities beyond refueling.
“By virtue of the design approach we’ve taken, it will enable a tremendous amount of growth as the Navy goes forward,” Rob Weiss, the soon-to-retire head of Skunk Works, said in an April 9 briefing.
Lockheed’s proposal will also feature a “basic ISR capability.”
Similarly, a model of Boeing’s MQ-25 proposal had a surveillance pod tucked under its the nose of the aircraft.
“I think that’s one of the great things that the team … did, is they positioned T-1 [Boeing’s MQ-25 prototype] to be able to have the ability to expand to multimissions,” Mark Cherry, the head of Boeing’s Phantom Works, said in an April 10 interview.
“Certainly, I think the Navy’s got it right,” Cherry said. “They’re focused on refueling as something that will be an immediate help to the air wing, immediate help to the warfighters. You get that out there and then from there. When you put innovative products in the hands of innovative people, like the folks in the carrier wing, they’re going to find new and inventive ways to make use of that.”
And concept images in General Atomics’ proposal also show an ISR pod on the drone.
Also: Weiss drew parallels between Lockheed’s MQ-25 proposal and the F-117 stealth fighter built by the company in the 1980s. Like the F-117, the proposed MQ design includes “proven” parts from other aircraft, including the landing gear from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the engine used on the F/A-18 Hornet. “That reduces not only the cost, but the development risk, using proven technologies,” said Jeff Babione, who has been tapped to take over Skunk Works from Weiss.
What’s Up at Newport News Shipbuilding
As the Navy sets its sights on a larger fleet, Jennifer Boykin, executive vice president of Huntington Ingalls Industries and president of Newport News Shipbuilding, said the company has the space, is hiring employees and is making investments in facilities for that increased workload. “We’re very excited about the opportunities that the new work on our horizon brings to us,” Boykin said at an April 10 briefing.
Here’s the status update for some of the shipyard’s projects:
- Boykin called the Navy’s recent decision to issue a request for two new carriers “a big step forward,” and the first two-carrier purchase since 1988. “This is a big deal for us and it is a great value for the American taxpayer,” Boykin said. “The impact to this is going to be significant to us and to the whole shipbuilding supply chain.” This type of contract would secure “work and stability” through 2032.
- The USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79) is 75 percent “structurally complete” and the first piece of the ship’s flight deck will be put in place later this month. Overall, the program is 43 percent complete. “We are on track for 18 to 20 percent fewer man-hours for construction of Kennedy than on” its predecessor, the USS Gerald Ford,” Boykin said. The Navy is slated to get the Kennedy in 2022.
- The first piece of steel for the first of 12 Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines was cut a few weeks ago — one step on a journey to its commissioning in 2031.
- Speaking of steel, Boykin said the company’s suppliers are assessing the potential impacts from tariffs on foreign-made steel and aluminum imposed by President Trump. “Relative to us, we only buy American steel and we have long-term contracts in place,” she said. “We’ve talked with our suppliers. We do not see any immediate issue on our plans, but it is something that we continue to pay attention to obviously as all the supply base is sort of figuring out what the impact may be.”
Pentagon Suspends F-35 Deliveries
Big scoop by Reuters this week: the Pentagon is not taking deliveries of F-35s from Lockheed Martin “because of a dispute over who will cover costs for fixing a production error.” Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Thursday morning confirmed that after speaking at the Norway-American Defense Conference in Washington. “Once Lockheed comes back to us on the fix and how they’re going to fix the issue at hand, we’ll move forward,” Spencer said. “They have a fix in place, it’s the financial responsibility and liability that we’re working on. We have a little bit of a disagreement there, but I’m sure we’re going to come to a conclusion on it.”
Making Bullets the New Smart Bombs
Like many bomb-makers these days, Orbital ATK has seen its business increase in recent years as the U.S. military’s campaign against ISIS nears its fourth anniversary this summer.
“The demand is pretty high for propulsion systems that go on a lot of those platforms,” Michael Kahn, the president of Orbital ATK said in an April 10 interview. (The company’s defense business encompasses about a $2 billion portfolio that includes munitions, missiles, rocket motors, special mission aircraft and hypersonics)
At the same time, engineers are trying extend the range and increase the accuracy of ammunition and artillery. Think of it like making a “dumb” unguided-bomb smart by adding a GPS tail kit.
The company has developed new artillery fuses that can steer themselves toward targets using GPS. It’s similar to those JDAM tails added to bombs. “From an operational standpoint, you give the military the ability to hit their target on the first [or] second shot as opposed to a lot of shots,” Kahn said. “Not only do you save a lot of rounds and save a lot of time, but chances are you’re going to accomplish your mission as opposed to just scare somebody off.”
The fuses are already used in the Army’s 155-millimeter artillery round and the company is developing similar technology for small and large rounds.
“The reason why we’re doing that is because these rounds are a fraction of the price of what missiles cost,” Kahn said. “If you can take out a target at a fraction of the price of a missile, you can save the missiles for bigger applications.”
Another benefit, you can double or triple the effective range of a munition, said Bart Olson, vice president of strategy and business development for Orbital ATK.
I’ll be at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, which is primed to be a huge event, with the Pentagon ups its focus on space and the commercial space industry booms. Speakers include Vice President Mike Pence, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. John Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command.
Two big moves as the president has nominated Adm. Philip Davidson as the next head of .S. Pacific Command. Davidson is currently the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy as next head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. O’Shaughnessy is the commander of Pacific Air Forces. Their promotions are subject to Senate confirmation.
Duane Hawkins of Spirit AeroSystems has become a board member at Nammo Inc., the U.S. arm of Norway’s Nammo Group. Hawkins is the senior vice president for Boeing and defense programs with Spirit AeroSystems.