Lessons of virtual AFA; Esper wants more cash for ships; One-on-one with Lockheed Aero boss, and more.

One thing we learned about the Air Force Association’s newly all-Virtual Air, Space & Cyber conference this week: top military leaders were eager to participate.

While it’s difficult to replicate the in-person tradeshow floor and after-hours networking, executives said their schedules were loaded with Zoom calls with top leaders throughout the week. Moreover, several industry leaders said their meetings were more focused and longer since there was no travel involved.

Top Air Force and Space Force generals conducted daily press conferences, company executives gave program updates, and there might have even been a number of informal video happy hours in the evening. And just about everyone is far less exhausted from walking around a massive convention center all day.

Most of the panel discussions were recorded in advance, though a few top leaders gave live speeches. The Air Force Association filled the gaps in between with some live commentary, sponsored interviews, and commercials.

The way things are looking now, in-person trade shows are not likely to resume until mid-2021 at the earliest. It’ll be interesting to see if a hybrid in-person+virtual construct will be adapted even when life gets somewhat back to normal. Mark your calendar for August 2021, when the Space Symposium is scheduled.


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Esper Wants More Money for Ships

The defense secretary, who is in California this week, called for a boost in shipbuilding funding as the Navy struggles to increase its fleet to 355 ships. How much? Esper prepared remarks, which were widely distributed by the Pentagon, called for a 2 percent increase. But the numbers were left out of his speech he delivered. A Pentagon spokesman told Breaking Defense that the numbers are “predecisional” and thus left out. Defense News reported that a 2 percent increase in shipbuilding funding is about $4 billion.

One-On-One: Lockheed Aeronautics Executive VP

Michele Evans, the executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, oversees not only the company’s aircraft projects — including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, F-22 Raptor, F-16 Falcon, C-130J Super Hercules and C-5 Super Galaxy — but also all future weapons developments within the company’s famed Skunk Works Advanced Development Programs business. Here are some excerpts from our conversation late last week.

Q. How does the peace deal between Israel and UAE change your calculus or projections for Middle Eastern sales of the F-35 and F-16?

A. I'd have to turn you probably back to the Department of Defense. We're waiting to see kind of what all that means. We'll certainly follow their lead in terms of what they choose to sell to what countries. But … we’re excited — whether it is F-16 or F-35 — that we've got an opportunity to continue to grow that international business and support the peace deal.

Q. The age-old question: how long is the F-16 going to be around?

A. You know, it's going to be around as long as there are countries that need the capability. Our focus is: how do we help some of these countries get into F-16s and then use the F-16, potentially as a path to someday the F-35. We're excited to continue to see the demand for the F-16. We certainly believe you're going to see the F-16 continue to be built — probably at a minimum out to 2030. And if it continues to have strong sales, we see it probably going even beyond that.

Q. Do you view the F-15EX as a threat to F 35?

A. I really don't. I respect the Air Force that they have to look at their operational needs and choose the complement of platforms that best suits their operational needs. We believe the F-35 is a superior platform. With its fifth-gen capabilities, we believe it brings capabilities that other platforms can't. But I certainly respect the Air Force, that they've made a decision to procure the F-15EX and we're going to continue to make sure that we're driving upgrades and capabilities into the F-35 to keep it competitive and keep it the platform of choice for the U.S. Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and our partner and [foreign military sales] nations.

Q. What is the status of the F-35 performance-based logistics contract that Lockheed is negotiating with the Air Force? Have there been any progressions or sticking points?

A. Actually it's had positive momentum. We're working through — with the [Joint Program Office] — a bunch of [courses of action], really looking at what are the best alternatives and how do we really get the maximum savings? So again, we're continuing to work through the acquisition process and are hopeful we can get to a contract to work next year.

Q. How do you view the Digital Century Series? What does Lockheed have to do differently in the way it builds airplanes to be successful? Should the Air Force buy multiple planes every couple years or so?

A. We're excited about the Digital Century Series. If you look at the modern digital transformation, and the tools and processes, in terms of how to develop, manufacture and sustain an aircraft, and also the software associated with it. You think about F-35 and how long ago that was really in the design phase. … Look at where technology has gone, not only in terms of the platform capabilities itself, but in terms of the design tools, the manufacturing tool, huge advancements that we're taking advantage of in Lockheed Martin.

[We’ve created] Stardrive, which is really our acceleration within the Aeronautics company of the digital transformation. Think of model-based systems engineering, think about factory of the future, software development in terms of containerization technologies like Kubernetes, and agile [software] and then even into sustainment in terms of how we use data analytics and AI. I think the technologies are just going to provide tremendous opportunities to speed up the development in the delivery of platforms going forward. We're excited to participate in the … concept of the Digital Century Series, and how do we support our customers to pace the threat and really deliver capability faster.”

Q. What's the status of the tanker arrangement between Lockheed Martin and Airbus?

A. We're excited about the partnership as the Air Force looks going forward at refueling and mobility. We believe we have a strong partnership with Airbus and will continue to leverage our Marietta manufacturing facility to provide a competitive offering as [the Air Force] really get to defining those requirements and getting to [requests for proposals].

AFA Speed Read

Making Moves

The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory named Bill LaPlante, president and CEO. LaPlante, who served as Air Force acquisition executive during the Obama administration, has been a top executive at MITRE.