F-35 axes Northrop sensor; SOCOM ups glide-bomb order; Microsoft pitches AI; and more.

When I went to see F-35 Joint Strike Fighters being built at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Fort Worth a few years ago, folks there spent a good amount of time talking about how dozens of small projects could shave millions of dollars from the jet’s price tag in the coming years. Dubbed the “Blueprint for Affordability,” these efforts relied largely on new manufacturing techniques or creating more competition among parts suppliers. Lockheed said the trims could save up to $4 billion if sales go as planned.

But the company made a move this week that could shave even more off the cost: it will stop buying a sensor system from Northrop Grumman, and switch to what it calls a better, cheaper, more reliable system from Raytheon. In all, the shift, Lockheed said, will generate “more than $3 billion in life cycle cost savings.”

Northrop touts its Distributed Aperture System as “the only 360-degree, spherical situational awareness system.” Cameras mounted on the jet allow a pilot wearing a special helmet to effectively see through the plane.

Here’s why this move matters: It shows Lockheed is not afraid to drop big-name suppliers, at least when the pain is not too bad. (Northrop still has lots of F-35 work; it builds the jet’s fuselage, radar, and other mission systems.) Lockheed said the competing Raytheon systems offers “5 times more reliability” and “2 times performance capability improvement.”

“The supply chain competition for the next generation F-35 Distributed Aperture System resulted in significant cost savings, reliability and performance improvements,” Greg Ulmer, Lockheed’s F-35 program manager, said in a statement. “We are aggressively pursuing cost reduction across the F-35 enterprise and this initiative is a clear demonstration of our unrelenting commitment to reduce costs and deliver transformational capabilities for the warfighter.”

The first operational F-35 equipped with the new Raytheon system is slated for delivery in 2023. Under currently plans, that means more than 900 F-35s will have the Northrop camera system. (Lockheed announced this week that it has delivered the 300th aircraft). One wonders: what is the cost to the military to support two different F-35 sensor configurations, and how much would it cost to retrofit existing jets?

The Pentagon has demanded lower costs from Lockheed. It appears the company is taking action.


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Microsoft Pitches AI

Just weeks after Google said it would bail on a Pentagon project that uses the firm’s algorithms to identify objects in drone video, its tech rival Microsoft opened a pop-up demonstration center to showcased its defense systems just a few blocks from the White House. In a Farragut Square office suite, Microsoft set up giant touchscreens and other gear to show off its cloud-based artificial intelligence and machine-learning technology. (Check out my story about how the company is pitching it AI to predict when weapons will break.)

“At Microsoft, we are committed to help the Department of Defense and its mission…through the utilization of our technology...whether it be directly or whether it be though one of our partners,” said Jim Ford, a retired Navy intelligence officer who is now the director of cloud strategy and solutions for Microsoft Federal. “We also feel that it’s absolutely important that the DoD invest in the leveraging of these advanced analytics, especially with regard to cloud because the adversaries are doing it already.”

Microsoft is among the tech titans vying for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract known as JEDI.

Some takeaways from the visit:

  • The company is talking more to “mission owners” in the defense and government space, Ford said. “Developing those relationships with the mission owners is really where digital transformation is going to take place.”
  • Microsoft’s cloud, which runs Office 365, Dynamics and even XBox is the “second most attacked entity in the world behind” the Pentagon, Ford said. “It’s very important that it stays up because if you’ve ever wanted to know a very militant demographic, I give you gamers that experience lag.” The firm uses AI to protect its cloud and the fiber optic lines that connect it. “We have literally bet the company’s future on our own AI. If this goes down, so does Microsoft. So we have to keep this up.”

SOCOM Ups Purchase of New Glide Bomb

Back in August 2016, we got a sneak peak at the Small Glide Munition, a new bomb being developed for U.S. Special Operations Command by Huntsville, Alabama-based Dynetics. Today, the customer seems happy. "The rapid fielding of the [Small Glide Munition] has transformed the operational capability profiles of deployed USSOCOM assets by tripling munitions lethality effects over existing USSOCOM munitions,” Dynetics said in a statement. Late last week, SOCOM handed the company a $470 million contract to “increase production levels” of the bomb. “As a result of early operation success as well as a recent directive by the Secretary of Defense to maximize munition production, USSOCOM has awarded this supplemental contract to meet this objective which will provide for the production of up to 1,000 [Small Glide Munitions] per year as well as support for testing, training, fielding and employment,” the company announced.

New Army Tech at Eurosatory

Across the Atlantic in Paris, all sorts of new ground-war technology was on display this week at the biennial Eurosatory arms show. Among the more interesting items:

  • MBDA and robot maker Milrem Robotics announced they would jointly develop “the world’s first unmanned ground vehicle specially designed for anti-tank purposes.” Here’s a picture.
  • BAE Systems iFighting technology “fuses together data from different systems within the vehicle to filter through and prioritize the most critical information,” according to the company. “This allows the crew to make quicker and more effective decisions to improve overall performance on the battlefield.”
  • AM General debuted its “next generation light tactical vehicle, the NXT 360.” Its latest version of the Humvee, the NXT 360 “can be delivered as complete new vehicle that can be incorporated into new missions, or as an upgrade kit that can be integrated into existing vehicle fleets to gain the same advanced capabilities,” the company said in a statement.

Construction Continues at Over-budget STRATCOM HQ

U.S. Strategic Command’s new headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha is more than 29 months behind schedule and $53 million over budget, according to the Omaha World Herald. STRATCOM said the delayed were due to “mold mitigation in some areas of ductwork, construction related flood and fire events, and a shortage of qualified tradesmen.” Workers at the 916,000-square-foot facility (which I visited in the fall) has installing all the special wiring that will connect it to the military’s nuclear forces

India’s Apache Purchase, Cleared

The U.S. State Department cleared the nearly $1 billion deal for six of the Boeing-make attack helicopters last Friday. The estimated $930 million price tag also includes a whole bunch of Hellfire missiles and other equipment. The announcement comes as U.S. officials are increasingly urging India to buy American weapons.

Making Moves

Now that Northrop Grumman’s purchase of Orbital ATK has gone through, the firm has incorporated Orbital’s work as “Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems,” one of four business sectors. The firm’s board also elected Blake Larson as corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. He reports to Kathy Warden, Northrop Grumman’s president and chief operating officer. Larson previously served as the chief operating officer of Orbital ATK.