Atlantic Council

Defense Industrialist

The Scorpion Beat the JSF to Britain. Now Starts the Sales Challenge.


The Scorpion flew over 
From Wichita 
With only one support plane 
Some fuel stops en route 
Where is the F-35? 


It has been all over the news that Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter isn’t making it to Farnborough 2014—apparently it’s unsafe—but Textron AirLand’s Scorpion was never doubted at the show. Textron is hoping to rack up some sales, and a contact at the company sent me some verse (if not quite haiku) to commemorate the occasion. To be fair to Lockheed, building a tri-service supersonic stealth fighter with 360-degree situational awareness is hard engineering work. But twelve years ago, the JSF attracted eight international customers with only a prototype and a promise. As Aaron Mehta of Defense News observes today, that airplane is missing in action this week, but it’s still dominating conversations. For Textron’s part, building a subsonic surveillance-attack jet from scratch in under two years has indeed been impressive entrepreneurial work. But to convert customers to its differing vision of the market, the company has some hard institutional work to do as well.

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Keep Providers that are Cheap, or Providers that are Good—You Choose.

Politico Pro ran an article earlier this week on Engility (NYSE:EGL), in which CEO Anthony Smeraglinolo argues that its “low cost contracting model works,” but that two years in, “the company is now under pressure to prove that it can boost its sales and profit.” Politico goes on to note that in its spin-off from L-3 Communications, largely to avoid organizational conflicts of interest with its customers, Engility was engineered for a market in which contracts were awarded to companies with "lowest-priced, technically acceptable” (formally called LPTA) bids. But big trouble lurks with that industrial policy: consistent application of lowest-price contracting gradually produces a supplier base in which even the best firms can’t make money, no one bothers to invest, and eventually the supply of quality providers shrinks.

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DARPA Needs Cylons—Just not from Google.

As I was asking last week, how ever will it build its Cylons (er, rescue robots) if Google keeps buying all the promising suppliers? Boston Dynamics and Tokyo’s SCHAFT looked very promising, so Google hoovered them up. Suppose Houston’s TRAC Labs looks good in the next round—will Google simply pay whatever is necessary to get that outfit too? It’s not unimaginable. So, to salvage what it can of a military robotics industry, what is DARPA to do? few extreme but possible tactics come to mind: none of the options are all that appealing, but the government could attempt 

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Can it Meet its Cost and Schedule Objectives? 

Weeks later, we are still awaiting that RFP for the LRS-B, the one that was supposed to be available “within days” back in mid-June. Early on, I had formulated four questions that I thought any policymaker ought to ask about the program. It is entirely possible that a classified RFP has been released to the qualified parties without a public announcement, so I will now wrap up with number 4:

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How is DARPA supposed to build its Cylons if Google is buying all its contractors?

Schaft and Boston Dynamics are the two robotics companies that recently took first and second place in the penultimate round of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Both were bought by Google last December, and with an announcement from the new parent company late last month, both are now out of the competition. Google is swearing off any further cooperation with the US Defense Department in robotics. One can imagine at least three possibilities for the ultimate reason behind this sweeping decision:

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Political change must precede successful assistance from the west.

The collapse of the Iraqi Army last month did seem shocking: eight hundred gunmen from the jihadist group formerly known as ISIS, armed with nothing heavier than a DiShKa on a technical, somehow routed two Iraqi divisions in just days. As I noted last weekend, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki blames this fiasco on tardy deliveries of fighter jets from the United States. Whether or not a squadron of high-flying fighters would have much mattered, there have been plenty of other efforts to assign blame. Last month, Kevin Sullivan and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post called the defeat "a failure for nation’s premier and for the U.S. military” that trained his men. Yet despite all the help coming from the Iranians and the Russians, and for all this complaining about the Americans, the latter are still regarded in Iraq as almost indispensable. Lt. General Qassem Atta, the new Baghdad Bob, has been openly pining for a "true intervention” by the US.

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Dmitry Rogozin's people got jets and pilots to Iraq yesterday.

In yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen, David Pugliese quoted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as finding yet another way to blame the collapse of his army on the United States. His new F-16s are not due to arrive until the autumn, and he asserts that "if we had air support, none of this would have happened.” I question this narrative of my-kingdom-for-a-jet, for it’s not clear that 36 fighter aircraft could have accomplished what two infantry divisions wouldn’t. But regardless of whether the aircraft would have been decisive in the fight against ISIS, Mr. Maliki has a point when he complains that "as usual the American process was slow and very long-winded and so far we have not had any deliveries."

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Does it really need a nuclear capability?

“Within days,” Air Force Assistant Secretary Bill LaPlante told us at the beginning of the week, but we’re still awaiting that RFP on the LRS-B. So, I continue to prematurely work through the four questions that I believe policymakers should want answered if the program is to proceed. To recap from yesterday, those are

  1. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, how it is going to penetrate serious air defenses?
  2. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, why is a shorter-ranged aircraft inadequate?
  3. If the bomber is to have a nuclear capability, why are ballistic missiles are inadequate for nuclear attack?
  4. Can the performance requested be provided within the cost and schedule advertised?

Here goes number 3.

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What’s the real range requirement for a “long-range” bomber?

As we await whatever is releasable in the US Air Force's request for proposal (RFP) for a new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), I am working through the four questions that I believe policymakers should want answered if the program is to proceed. To recap from yesterday, those are

  1. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, how it is going to penetrate serious air defenses?
  2. If the bomber is to have a conventional capability, why is a shorter-ranged aircraft inadequate?
  3. If the bomber is to have a nuclear capability, why are ballistic missiles are inadequate for nuclear attack?
  4. Can the performance requested be provided within the cost and schedule advertised?

I’ll deal with the second question today.

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Part One—How survivable will today’s bomber be a decade on?

In the next few days, the US Air Force will release its request for proposals for its long-planned Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). Two proposals are expected: one from a team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and one from B-2 builder Northrop Grumman. The program should proceed quickly: Speaking at an Atlantic Council event on 13 June, Assistant Secretary Bill LaPlante said that the Air Force could choose its contractor in early 2015. The aircraft is supposed to be built only with existing technology, and a great deal may have been developed in the past few years, as evidenced by those mystery aircraft that have been overlying the Texas Panhandle. The unit cost of the aircraft is supposed to not exceed $550 million per plane, even if at least one Air Force general has called that more of a target than a cap

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