Defense Business Brief: Companies show off counter-drone tech; Spirit prepares for V-280 production; Airbus successfully automated aerial refueling system; and more.
Small drones were a ubiquitous sight at this week’s Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in Washington—with dozens suspended above the trade show booths in both of the massive exhibit halls.
Russia and Ukraine have both used these types of weapons extensively—especially those packed with explosives—since Russia’s February 2022 invasion. More recently, Hamas used small drones to attack Israeli infrastructure and military posts along the Gaza border.
At AUSA, the exhibit hall was packed with not just suicide drones, but also drones with rocket launchers and even machine guns mounted to their underbelly. And counter-drone technology, from lasers to guns, was also around every corner, a trend that has increased in recent years.
The U.S. and its allies have provided Ukraine with hundreds of counter-drone systems, some which were on display at AUSA. Among them: the Lightweight Multirole Missile, a canister-launched weapon the United Kingdom has given to Ukraine. The Thales-made missile, which the U.K. military calls the Martlet, has reportedly shot down Russian drones.
The missile’s use by the Ukrainian military marks the first time it’s been employed in combat, said Philip McBride, Thales managing director of integrated airspace protections systems in the United Kingdom. The missile had previously only been used in testing and training.
The laser-guided weapon, which has a 7-kilometer range, can be launched from a soldier’s shoulder, a ground vehicle, a helicopter, or even a ship, and it could strike aircraft or targets on the ground.
Asked how the weapons are performing in combat, McBride said. “Clearly, [the ministry of defense} over in Ukraine talk regularly to [the] U.K. MoD. If there was an issue with this, I'd be the first to know.”
Thales, which makes the missile in the Northern Ireland capital, hopes its success on the battlefield will lead to more sales, particularly in the United States. The company demonstrated the missile for the U.S. Army’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office this past summer, according to Christipher Beauparlant, vice president of sensors, missiles, and system solutions for Thales Defense & Security in the United States.
The tests were “very successful for us on a variety of targets as they put up,” Beauparlant said. “I think because of LMM's success, everybody's taking notice of this capability, and we're being invited in to participate in these demonstrations and evaluations.”
The company also hopes to sell the missile to the U.S. Marine Corps.
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Amid Spirit Aerosystems’s push to grow its defense and space business, it has hired Vince Tobin, a former Bell executive, to oversee its greatly expanding production of rotorcraft fuselages. Spirit, probably best known for building commercial airliner bodies, builds fuselages for the CH-53K heavy-lift helicopter and the V-280 Valor, the brand new tiltrotor that will replace many of the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters.
While the Marine Corps is only slated to buy a couple hundred or so CH-53s, give or take international orders, V-280 production could be in the thousands, since dozens of U.S. allies are flying the Black Hawk today.
“This program [the V-280] can rival the 737 from a dollars perspective, so that's a big deal,” Tobin said in an interview.
That would be a big deal, considering the 737 is among the most sold single-aisle airliners. The sheer size of production prompted Spirit to create a rotary wing business, Tobin said. He estimates V-280 production could be at least 4,000, even if the Army chooses not to replace all of its Black Hawks.
Beyond the military, the rotary business also sees opportunities in the nascent electric vertical lift market.
Most recently at Bell, Tobin ran the company’s military programs. Before that, he oversaw development of the V-280 Valor, after serving as the director of the company’s V-22 Osprey program.
Spirit specializes in reducing the weight of complex aircraft structures. A lighter structure means a more efficient, cheaper-to-fly aircraft.
The Army selected the Bell V-280 last year, but though Bell built a prototype for the competition, the final version the service flies will have changes.
“The V-280 was an awesome aircraft, but we wanted to get it in the air quickly, so it was a demonstrator,” Tobin said. “We now need to build an integrated weapon system with all the avionics, all the mission equipment, all the considerations for how the troops are going to employ it. Those are the things that are driving a little bit of change in design.”
As it sets up a production line, the company is evaluating which parts will be automated and which parts will be assembled by people.
Looking forward, Spirit hopes to get a piece of the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program, which will replace the Bell OH-58 Kiowa. Sikorsky is competing against Bell for the deal.
“We certainly think we can play there, and so we're keeping those options open,” Tobin said.
In non-Army news, Airbus said it successfully completed trials of an automated air-to-air refueling system on its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport. During three weeks of testing in August, a Singapore A330 tanker made more than 500 automated contacts with several military aircraft, including F-15 and F-16 fighters. “The automatic refueling system reduces air-refueling operator workload, improves safety, and optimizes the air-to-air refueling transfer rate in operational conditions to maximize air superiority,” Airbus said in a statement.
Why it matters: Airbus is teamed with Lockheed Martin in pitching a version of the A330 tanker, called the LMXT, to the U.S. Air Force. It is expected to compete against the Boeing-made KC-46. Boeing has previously said it has “demonstrated autonomous boom aerial refueling capability with the KC-46A during flight testing.”
Speaking of Lockheed, it will be the first to report third quarter earnings next Tuesday. The five other largest defense prime contractors report their quarterly earnings the week of Oct. 23.
Spirit Aerosystems announced last week that Patrick Shanahan, the longtime Boeing executive and former deputy defense secretary and acting SecDef, will become the company’s interim president and CEO following the resignation of the company’s former President and CEO Tom Gentile. Here are some profiles we had about Shanahan when he was picked to be deputy defense secretary, and when he was acting defense secretary.