The U.S. Navy this month launched “AIRWorks,” an initiative modeled on Lockheed Martin Corp’s Skunk Works and Boeing Co’s Phantom Works divisions that aims to develop new weapons more quickly to meet U.S. military needs.
AIRWorks completed several projects over the past year even as it took shape. They included bulletproofing V-22 tiltrotor aircraft built by Boeing and Textron Inc for the Air Force, and adding rockets to the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter built by Northrop Grumman Corp for the Navy.
“More than anything else, for us it’s about speed and cost,” Rear Admiral Mark Darrah, chief engineer for the Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command and commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center’s aircraft division, told Reuters in an interview.
The goal is to use prototyping and the Navy’s substantial in-house know-how to develop rapid solutions for urgent military needs. Depending on the situation, the products developed could later be opened to competition by defense contractors, he said.
“We have realized over the past several years that we’ve got to find a way to go faster to develop these kind of capabilities,” he said, noting that tighter budgets made it crucial for the Navy to use its resources more effectively.
Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall and other U.S. officials have put huge emphasis on the need for creative solutions from government and industry as they struggle to replace and upgrade aging weapons despite declining budgets.
Darrah, who will move over to head the Navy’s unmanned aircraft and missile programs at the end of October, said AIRWorks also developed affordable digital cockpits for older CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp.
“We believe we’re going to continue to evolve this and bring even more affordability to the fleet,” he said, noting that the AIRWorks initiative pulls together many disparate groups that were already doing rapid innovation work across the Navy.
Darrah last year invited executives from the Boeing and Lockheed divisions that invent weapons to share their insights. “They gave us some great ideas on how to establish an innovative organization,” he said. “What we’re trying to instill is the same culture, and where appropriate, processes, that Skunk Works and Phantom Works use to do innovation, full integration of new technologies, and prototyping.”
Steve Justice, deputy vice president of advanced program pursuits at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, said AIRWorks would allow companies to collaborate more effectively with the Navy on how to integrate new and emerging technologies into new weapons.
“It offers huge potential for the Navy to address the challenges of future acquisition in a tough budget environment,” he said.
Justice said Lockheed had proposed partnering with AIRWorks to find ways to ensure that new composite materials could be used for Navy aircraft, which require catapult takeoffs and arrested landings that put far more stress on airframes. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Gunna Dickson)