A student works at the Bath Iron Works training facility at Brunswick Landing in Maine on August 29, 2019.

A student works at the Bath Iron Works training facility at Brunswick Landing in Maine on August 29, 2019. Portland Press Herald via Getty Images / Brianna Soukup

Defense Business Brief: Trade show whirlwind; LaPlante confirmed; Bath Iron Works boss quits; and a lot more

What a week! Three major trade shows, Pentagon officials on the Hill, and a war in Ukraine. We’ll try to fill you in on everything happening and what to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead.

First up, the Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference. The main exhibit hall seemed to include more startups and non-traditional companies than in years past. Among them was Anduril, the California-based artificial intelligence firm that recently acquired underwater drone-maker Dive Technologies and scored a $1 billion SOCOM counter-drone contract. The company showed off one of its 3D-printed unmanned underwater vehicles. Shield AI and Saildrone also had booths. 

“We have been attending defense trade shows for years now, and one observation is the growing footprint at these shows of new entrants,” Capital Alpha Partners Byron Callan wrote in an April 6 note to investors.

A major focus was connecting weapons, a top priority for the Navy and the rest of the military. Contractors showed off a lot of tech focused on joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, and 5G communications.

Traditional contractors were also at the show, which was a coming-out for Chris Kastner, the new Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO. Kaster, who was previously the firm’s chief financial officer, touted the company’s $40 billion backlog and investments “in technologies that we're both developing within the commercial world and [are] very interested in by our customer.” Kastner described HII as “a remodeled home with good bones…with some additions.”

HII, which acquired UUV maker Hydroid in 2020, has also been seeking AI and other types of new tech. Last year, it acquired Alion Science and Technology for $1.65 billion, deepening its research-and-development and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance portfolios to take aim at what Kastner called growth markets.

“The technologies they were investing in and developing for their customers, primarily the Navy, were very interesting to us,” he said. 

Let’s now go west to Colorado Springs and the Space Symposium, where my colleague Jacqueline Feldscher filed this dispatch: 

The Space Symposium’s exhibit hall had a few eye-popping displays—including a walk-in model of Northrop Grumman’s commercial space station and a giant inflatable planet spinning above the NASA booth—but it lacked many of the interactive exhibits at past shows. One notable exception was the Lockheed Martin booth, which had a video game where attendees could try their hand driving a rover on the surface of the moon.

What the cluck? Northrop’s ersatz space station featured two stuffed chickens—a harbinger, a company spokesman tells me, of future astronauts’ need to raise their own food during long-haul missions to Mars. Sending chickens to low-Earth orbit will help scientists study how livestock react to space travel—and see whether chickens can lay eggs in zero-G. 

Freeze-dried fun: A space-souvenir booth was selling astronaut ice cream and freeze-dried dog treats so even Fido can get in on the fun. 

Finally, to Nashville and the annual aircraft-focused symposium held by Army Aviation Association of America, better known as Quad A. Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team competing in the Army’s future attack reconnaissance aircraft effort plan to fly their new aircraft by the end of next year, writes Jen Judson of Defense News. Jen also reports that the Army is planning to hold a shoot-off of three long-range missiles being considered for the Apache attack helicopter.

Bonus: Here’s a video of Teledyne FLIR’s Black Hornet nano-drone demoed at the show.

Just in: The head of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works abruptly resigned Friday, the Portland Press Herald reports. “Dirk Lesko has retired as president of Bath Iron Works effective immediately. Robert E. Smith, General Dynamics executive vice president for Marine Systems, has assumed direct responsibility for Bath Iron Works pending appointment of a permanent replacement,” a company spokesman said in an emailed statement to the Defense One.

It’s been a rough few years at Bath. The majority of its workers, which build Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, went on strike for 63 days in 2020. Last year, the company warned of layoffs if the Navy didn’t purchase more destroyers. The shipyard has also been behind on its work.

Just in, part 2: The Senate confirmed Bill LaPlante to be defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment. “"Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an urgent reminder that national security must remain a priority, and Bill's swift bipartisan confirmation reflects this fact,” Eric Fanning, Aerospace Industries Association CEO Eric Fanning said in an emailed statement. “Bill and I worked together in the Pentagon for many years, and I know he will be a tremendous leader in this crucial role.”

On Capitol Hill, Pentagon officials were defending the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said vaccine mandates have not hampered recruiting, my colleague Elizabeth Howe reports. Some other highlights from Austin and Milley’s time on the Hill this week: The Defense Department has provided several conflicting answers in recent days regarding whether or not U.S. personnel are training Ukrainians and what would Ukrainian ‘Victory’ look like?

There are more problems with Boeing's new Air Force One, which is undergoing extensive modifications in San Antonio, Texas, the Wall Street Journal reports. The newspaper’s Andrew Tangel writes: “During the production of the new Air Force One jets earlier this year, Boeing crews were attempting to shift the weight of one of the aircraft to jacks from a scaffold-like structure in the factory, people familiar with the matter said. But the weight on some of the jacks significantly exceeded how much they are designed to hold, leading to concerns about damage to the aircraft, these people said.”

A successful HAWC flight. The Lockheed Martin version of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept “after release from a carrier aircraft, was boosted to its Aerojet Rocketdyne scramjet engine ignition envelope. From there, it quickly accelerated to and maintained cruise faster than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) for an extended period of time. The vehicle reached altitudes greater than 65,000 feet and flew for more than 300 nautical miles,” DARPA said in a statement that omitted the date of the test. Last year, a Raytheon Technologies/Northrop Grumman-made HAWC hypersonic weapon completed a successful flight test.

Northrop Grumman has teamed with telecom giant AT&T “to research and develop a digital battle network, powered by AT&T 5G and Northrop Grumman’s advanced mission systems, to support the U.S. Department of Defense,” the companies said. Last year, Lockheed Martin teamed with Verizon to pursue similar military work.

Back in February, I asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown about what looks like a mysterious aircraft captured by a Planet satellite on a taxiway at Area 51, the secret testing base at Groom Lake, north of Las Vegas, which our friends at The War Zone first reported that same month. Here’s our exchange, which was part of a longer interview for our State of Defense series:

Defense One: “There's been some attention given to a satellite picture of one of your bases that you don't talk about, and it's got an aircraft that's apparently sitting there on the runway in pure view. Was that done intentionally? And can you tell us what that is?”

Gen. Brown: “No, I can't. What I will tell you is that many moons ago when…capability in space was less proliferated, we had times we could actually do things and not be seen. It is harder to do things and not be seen.”

Finally, a 1918 Nieuport 28 took off recently, making it “America’s oldest, original, and airworthy combat aircraft has returned to the sky,” according to the American Heritage Museum and Collings Foundation. After a multiyear restoration, the plane flew in southern Sweden, the groups said in an emailed statement. There are only five Nieuport 28s in existence, the organizations said. Here’s a video of the flight. The plane is to be displayed at the American Heritage Museum when it comes back to the United States later this year.

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