Southern California was once the “Silicon Valley” of the U.S. — really the world’s — aerospace industry. The Spirit of St. Louis was designed and built there. So too were many of the planes that won World War Two and the Cold War. Over time, most of the manufacturing capability and much of the design and development prowess migrated to other locations. But what remains is still very impressive and contributes significantly to both the nation’s economy and security.
One of the leading sources of continuing innovation in aerospace technology is the Lockheed Martin “Skunkworks” located in Palmdale. Created by Ben Rich and “Kelly” Johnson in response to the U.S. Army’s need for a rapid jet aircraft development program, the Skunkworks (now called Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs division) recently celebrated its 70th birthday. Current Pentagon acquisition officials might be interested in learning that the original contract between Lockheed and the U.S. Army was based on a handshake and one page of specifications. Moreover, the first prototype of the F-80 Shooting Star rolled out in 143 days.
Since that time, the Skunkworks’ reputation has been based on rapidly developing unique and cost effective solutions to some of the U.S. government’s most difficult national security problems. Under Kelly Johnson’s leadership, the Skunkworks invented the U-2, SR-71, F-104 and the first stealth aircraft, the F-117. More recently, Skunkworks engineers have played a central role in the design of both of this nation’s fifth-generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35. It also has pioneered in such areas as the application of low observable technology to the design of unmanned aerial systems, hypersonic weapons and aircraft (together with Aerojet) and hybrid airships.
The Skunkworks is much more than just a design and development organization. It is responsible for depot level maintenance and upgrades for the Air Force’s fleet of U-2s. Based on a projected service life of 75,000 flight hours and with the many enhancements made to the aircraft at Palmdale, the U-2 could remain a highly effective ISR platform for decades to come. The Skunkworks also produces critical composite components for both the F-22 and F-35.
There is a lot of interest in the defense community in figuring out if the Skunkworks model can be applied more broadly to the dysfunctional defense acquisition system. My proposal is much simpler: don’t mess with success. The Skunkworks is a national asset, a treasure, that in the current budget environment needs to be protected and properly funded.
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