Flight International - 26 June 2018

(Jacob Rumans) #1

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ightglobal.com 26 June-2 July 2018 | Flight International | 11


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Lockheed officials point to its substantial credentials in hypersonics

Lockheed Martin

TECHNOLOGY STEPHEN TRIMBLE PALMDALE


Hiring spree will propel Skunk Works


Outgoing chief emphasises protecting specialist unit’s innovative approach to exotic projects as head count rises sharply


A


s it celebrates its 75th anni-
versary, Lockheed Martin’s
Skunk Works unit is in the mid-
dle of a huge – and unexplained



  • growth spurt.
    The Palmdale, California-
    based unit, which is focused on
    Lockheed’s most advanced and
    secretive projects, employed
    about 3,000 workers last year, but
    has about 3,500 today. This ex-
    pansion is about half way to a
    near-term goal of reaching 4,
    staff. “On-boarding” sessions for
    new employees used to be held
    every other week, but are now
    scheduled twice per week – and
    are full.
    “The number is moving so
    quickly we hesitate to give a
    number,” says Craig Johnson,
    Skunk Works’ director of busi-
    ness strategy and development.
    The reason or reasons behind
    the hiring spree are not totally
    clear, but could be an indicator of
    a recent major programme
    launch.
    Operating as a division of
    Lockheed’s Aeronautics business
    sector, Skunk Works’ economic
    activity of more than $1 billion
    this year – roughly equalling its
    heyday at the height of F-117 pro-
    duction – is about the same size
    as the company’s F-22 moderni-
    sation programme, Johnson says.


IN THE PIPELINE
A chart demonstrating the di-
verse range of current activity re-
veals no obvious signs of a major
new production programme. It
details work on a compact fusion
reactor: an effort that Lockheed
acknowledged five years ago to
develop a breakthrough nuclear
powerplant. Ongoing tests on a
series of subscale prototype reac-
tors will not produce data needed
for a go-ahead decision until later
this year or in 2019, officials say.
A next-generation fighter is also
in the early stages of the US De-
partment of Defense’s acquisition
planning process.
The ducted-fan-powered


ARES unmanned air vehicle,
which Lockheed hopes to fly at a
test range in Arizona by the end
of June, is a planned candidate
for the US Marine Corps’ MUX
programme, but that is several
years away from a contract
award. Skunk Works is also eye-
ing a next-generation UAV that
would be a more survivable re-
placement for General Atomics
Aeronautical Systems’ MQ-
Reaper.
Another image showed Lock-
heed’s vision for a future hyper-
sonic vehicle. Russia and China
have acknowledged major ad-
vances in testing such weapons
over the past two years, leading
some to question the US govern-
ment’s ability to respond after
decades of apparent hypersonic
neglect. However, Johnson notes:
“I don’t believe we are as far be-
hind as some of the press may
lead you to believe. Lockheed
Martin has a very substantial pro-
gramme going on in terms of hy-
personics.”
On 18 April, the US Air Force
awarded the company’s Denver-
based Space Systems division a
contract worth up to $928 mil-
lion to develop the air-launched
hypersonic conventional strike

weapon. “Skunk Works led the
effort,” Johnson says, adding:
“there is tremendous collabora-
tion with the Space Systems
[unit].”
Meanwhile, Lockheed is turn-
ing its attention to one of the US
military’s toughest problems. A
revolution in machine-learning
software algorithms in the com-
mercial market has bypassed the
most advanced combat aircraft,
because their processors use ar-
chaic architectures that take years
to accept upgrades. The Skunk
Works solution seems simple: ac-
cept the US military’s new open
mission standards as the founda-
tion for an operating system ar-
chitecture, then partner with
start-up companies with innova-
tive software applications to rap-
idly roll out new capabilities.

SMARTER SOFTWARE
During a tour of the Skunk Works
Integration Facility and Test Lab-
oratory on 14 June, John Clark,
vice-president of intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance,
demonstrated how such an archi-
tecture could work. Using a sur-
rogate simulator for a fighter
cockpit, the “pilot” defined an
area on a map, then pressed an

“automatic target recognition”
button on the cockpit display.
This cued a new, state-of-the-art
processor to query the fighter’s
sensor data and automatically
recognise several targets. The
same architecture also has appli-
cations that can allow different
aircraft types to share data.
The Skunk Works architecture
is making rapid progress. The or-
ganisation has completed a five-
year series of demonstrations
with titles such as projects Hunt-
er, Iguana and Missouri. The
most recent, system of systems
integration test and experimenta-
tion event was funded by the US
Defense Advanced Research Pro-
jects Agency.
The USAF has approved a
plan to integrate Lockheed’s ar-
chitecture into the F-22 fleet as
part of its tactical mandates and
tactical link upgrades. For the
first time, the service’s frontline
fighter will be able to use ma-
chine-learning algorithms to pro-
cess the volumes of data collect-
ed by its powerful sensors. A
version of the same architecture
is also being integrated with the
F-35 as part of the Technical Re-
fresh 3 programme.
Clark uses this advance as an
example of Skunk Works’ unique
methods in operation. By relying
on available technology and a se-
ries of flight demonstrations, he
says it has the tools to push new
capabilities into combat faster
than others.
It is a culture and a process
that must be protected as the or-
ganisation grows by one-third
over less than two years, says de-
parting executive vice-president
and general manager Rob Weiss,
who is handing over leadership
to Jeff Babione.
“You have to protect this cul-
ture here at Skunk Works,” Weiss
says. “You have to take the good-
ness the larger organisations have
to offer, but limit it so you can
preserve the ability to be quick
and affordable.” ■
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