The Northrop Grumman Acquisition of ATK: Shaping A Material Foundation for Enhanced Innovation


Northrop Grumman is in the final stages of acquiring ATK, the space company.

But not widely noticed is the key role which ATK plays in composites manufacturing, which is a key part of building 21st century aircraft.

ATK plays a key role in the F-35 program from this point of view.

In article by Jennifer Weaver and published on February 21, 2018, the ATK role in composites within the F-35 program was highlighted.

A celebration took place Tuesday upon the completion of the 5,000th F-35 composite part with a gathering at the Orbital ATK manufacturing facility in Clearfield, Utah.

“This milestone not only reflects our long-term partnership with Lockheed Martin on the F-35 program, it also showcases the growth of composite manufacturing in Utah as Orbital ATK has added over 500 jobs in the past two years and expects to add many more jobs over the next 20 years,” said Steve Earl, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Aerospace Structures Division, in a press release. “With the hands-on training and stable future we offer, these positions provide an opportunity to develop high-tech skills to build a long-term career that provides a sustainable living in the aerospace industry.”

Orbital ATK was awarded a contract in 2017 to also produce bullnose and blade seals for the F-35.

Clearly, as Northrop develops and then manufactures the new B-21 bomber, manufacturing innovation is a crucial part of the program.

Through both its experience at is highly robotized plant at Palmdale CA where the F-35 central fuselage is built by Northrop Gruman and in the ATK maturity in developing and manufacturing composite materials, Northrop is well positioned to build the new bomber.

Indeed, Northrop was recognized for its assembly line in a 2013 Assembly Plant of the Year award.

According to an article written October 1, 2013 by Austin Weber, the nature of the assembly line and its innovation was highlighted.

For decades, automotive engineers have looked to the aerospace industry for new ideas. Back in the 1930s and 1950s, Detroit was inspired by the sleek designs of innovative airplanes such as the Northrop Alpha and the Grumman F4F Wildcat.

But, the tables turned recently when engineers from Northrop Grumman Corp. paid a visit to several automakers and their automation suppliers. They were looking for fresh insight on ways to streamline military airframe production.

The result is a new assembly line in southern California that may change the way future generations of aerospace engineers approach production, just like Ford’s Highland Park plant revolutionized the auto industry a century ago.

Indeed, the Integrated Assembly Line (IAL) represents a significant shift in the way that airframes are assembled. It has enabled Northrop Grumman to achieve a 450 percent increase in throughput.

The IAL is housed in Plant 42, a government-owned facility in Palmdale, CA, operated by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. It’s a world-class operation that provides assembly, integration, testing and long-term maintenance capabilities for some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. The secretive site in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert is strategically located just a few miles south of Edwards Air Force Base.

The two-year-old IAL produces the center fuselage of the F-35 Lightning II, which will become the backbone of the U.S. military for the next three decades. Once production fully ramps up in a few years, assembly time for the new supersonic stealth aircraft will be less than half that of current-generation fighters. The IAL will play a key role in meeting that target.

“The IAL maximizes robotics and automation, providing additional capacity and assembly capability, while meeting engineering tolerances that are not easily achieved using manual methods,” says Brian Chappel, vice president of the F-35 program at Northrop Grumman. “It is central in producing the F-35’s center fuselage, as well as increasing the program’s affordability, quality and efficiency.

“The IAL design uses a system-engineering approach to integrate tooling and structure transport, system automation, automated drilling cells, and tooling mechanization coordinated across multiple build centers,” explains Chappel.

Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale facility is the recipient of the 2013 Assembly Plant of the Yearaward sponsored by ASSEMBLY Magazine. The innovative plant was chosen for the 10th annual award because of its ground-breaking approach to airframe assembly.

“Having traveled and visited almost every airframe manufacturing plant worldwide, including China, India and Russia, I believe they set the standard for automation and the application of advanced digital manufacturing on a modern airframe assembly line, commercial or military,” says George “Nick” Bullen, an aerospace consultant who recently retired from Northrop Grumman as principal engineer and technical fellow.

“Their design, development and application of automated drill and countersink machines, automated coating application systems, and moving assembly lines have resulted in significant cost reductions, quality improvements and safety enhancements,” adds Bullen.

According to Bullen, no major aerospace company has ever contracted to design and build an entire integrated assembly line. “Typically, large aerospace manufacturers are their own integrators, bidding specific parts of the assembly line from different suppliers and then integrating them,” he explains. “The IAL is a significant step for the industry.”

With the incorporation of ATK within Northrop Grumman, the company sees an opportunity to enhance its capability to develop and manufacture 21st century combat platforms.

This opportunity has been underscored by Northop’s recent announced decision to form a new business sedtor focused on new innovative technology.

In an article published on January 29, 2018 and written by Valerie Insinna, this decision was the focus of attention.

As we prepare for integration, we are making good progress in our plans to combine our two outstanding companies after close,” said Kathy Warden, Northrop president and chief operating officer, adding that she continues to expect the transaction to close in the first half of 2018.

“We believe that after the transaction has completed, our collective set of market-leading technologies and products, along with very compatible, innovation-focused cultures, will enable us to better serve our customers’ current and emerging needs.”

The companies plan to launch Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems later this year in the hopes of further driving the creation of new, cutting-edge technologies. That new sector will join Northrop’s aerospace systems, mission systems and technology services businesses.

Blake Larson, Orbital ATK’s chief operating officer, will lead Innovation Systems, Warden said. Meanwhile, Scott Lehr, Mike Kahn and Frank Culbertson — Orbital’s presidents for its flight, defense and space systems businesses, respectively — will retain their current roles.


Marine Aviation in Support of the MAGTF


Marine aviation provides the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with the operational flexibility it needs to accomplish its mission across the range of military operations.

This video showcases the different type aircraft within Marine Corps aviation.

Marine Aviation in Support of the MAGTF from on Vimeo.



Video by Sgt. Manuel Serrano 

Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools

UK Air Defence Strategy Launched by Minister of Defence: The Strategic Context


By Robbin Laird

During a visit last week to the European Air Group based at High Wycombe in the UK, I had the chance to meet with the Deputy Director of the EAG, Air Commodore Robert Adang of the Royal Netherlands Air Force and got an update on their work on 4th-5th generation integration.

Within a decade about a 1/3 of the fighters flying in NATO Europe will be F-35s and the impact is significant in stimulating innovation in terms of the entire air combat force operating in Europe.

Soon we will publish the interview and discussions with Air Commodore Adang.

The United Kingdom itself is in the throws of significant change in its force structure, and one of the key drivers of change is the coming of the F-35 to Marham this year and the Queen Elizabeth coming to the United States later this year for F-35 integration trials off of the waters of Virginia.

And as a I left the United Kingdom, the UK Minister of Defence announced a new UK air defense strategy which highlighted the importance of continued innovation in the air domain for the UK.

According to an article published on the UK Ministry of Defence website on February 21, 2018:

A Combat Air Strategy will be launched to ensure Britain maintains a world-leading combat air capability, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced in front of the defence select committee today.

The MOD will work across Government and closely with industry and international partners to explore the UK’s future Combat Air capabilities, building on the Industrial Strategy and refreshed Defence Industrial Policy launched last year.

The strategy will examine the operational capability needed in the future and the skills and resource required to deliver it. The work will take new and emerging technology into account, as well as export potential, whilst testing British industry’s ability to deliver our future requirements. It is expected to be launched in the summer.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“Since the birth of airpower, British industry has been crucial to maintaining our military’s world-leading position. As we celebrate 100 years of the RAF protecting our skies, it is fitting that we create bold and ambitious plans to help our brave Armed Forces keep us safe in the face of intensifying threats. The Combat Air Strategy will bring together the best of British engineering, skill and design, and deliver a compelling vision for the future of air power.”

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said:

“It is especially fitting that we launch the Combat Air Strategy as our Royal Air Force marks its 100th anniversary. Combat Air capabilities have been at the heart of the RAF’s capabilities throughout its history, and are constantly employed on operations across the world today.

“This strategy will ensure that the RAF can continue to remain at the forefront of the high-end airpower technology and innovation we need to deal with future threats, working in close collaboration with UK industry and our international partners.”

The UK is already a world-leader in the air sector which accounts for 85% of the Britain’s defence export orders. The industry is made up of close to 2,500 companies, generating more than £33.5bn in turnover and employing more than 128,000 people – some 26,000 of them in highly skilled research, design and engineering jobs.

Investment in combat air technology combined with the strengths of UK industry has resulted in the UK being the US’ only Tier 1 partner on the F-35 Lightning II programme, with British industry building around 15% of every F-35 which is built.

The UK has been able exploit the operational capabilities of the aircraft, while reinforcing UK industrial capability, skills and wider economic prosperity.

The UK also continues to lead the way in combat air power as one of the four partner nations in the Eurofighter Typhoon programme. With more than 20,000 flying hours on global operations to date, the Typhoon has offered unparalleled reliability and proven interoperability with our allies.

The F-35 Lightning II and the Typhoon are two complimentary multi-role combat aircraft that will make up the RAF’s combat air fleet, placing the UK at the forefront of fighter jet technology – with the Typhoon expected to remain in UK service until at least 2040.

Just last week the UK led the bid to replace Belgium’s fighter jets with 34 Typhoons with the offer to include a comprehensive defence and industrial partnership between the Governments of Belgium and the UK. The Defence Secretary Gavin

Williamson was also in Qatar at the end of last year to oversee Qatar’s multi-billion pound purchase of 24 Typhoon aircraft, supporting thousands of jobs across the UK.

The announcement of the strategy comes after an initial review of the defence aerospace sector by the MOD, which involved engaging across Government and with industry.

The development of a Combat Air Strategy is consistent with the themes of the Modernising Defence Programme. It will set out in practical terms how the MOD can deliver its critical military capability requirements whilst considering wider economic and international factors, and our national security objectives.

The strategy itself will be shaped by three dynamics of change in the broader strategic environment.

First, the post-Brexit strategy itself will be shaped by the dynamics of change in Northern Europe and the evolving Russian threat. With UK P-8s and F-35s flying in the same neighborhood of innovations in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, it is very likely that cross learning in Northern Europe will be a significant driver of change.

Second, the coming of the F-35 and its impact across Europe is a significant driver terms of training, and operations throughout the region within which the UK will be a key player.

Third, the Brexit process provides a significant challenge to UK and European defense industry more broadly. Companies like MBDA, Thales, Leonardo and Airbus rely on cross border integration in the defense industrial sector. How will this play out post-Brexit.

The RAF itself has shaped a new strategy of cross domain innovation modeled in part on the RAAF’s approach to innovation within which the industrial part is a key enabler of the strategy.

We will follow up on this cross dynamic when in Australia later in March for the airpower conferences being held mid-March.


Standing Up Direct Air Support Center in Cobra Gold 2018


The Marine Air Support Squadron 2 completes setup of a direct air support center in under 60 minutes at Prince Jetsada Camp in Sattahip, Chonburi province, Thailand, during Exercise Cobra Gold 18.

Cobra Gold, in its 37th iteration, is designed to advance regional security and ensure effective responses to regional crises by bringing together a robust multinational force to address shared goals and security commitments in the Indo-Pacific region.

Cobra Gold 2018 is an annual exercise conducted in the Kingdom of Thailand and runs from Feb. 13-23 with seven full participating nations.



Video by Airman 1st Class Timothy Tweet 

III Marine Expeditionary Force

RAAF Humanitarian Support: February March 2018


2018-03-02 At the request of the Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Australian Defence Force is providing support to the Department of Foreign Affairs effort following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that stuck central PNG on 26 February 2018.

In the video below, the role of the C-130J is highlighted.

According to the Australian Department of Defence in an article published on March 1, 2018:

A Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules has conducted aerial surveillance over the area affected by the earthquake.

A replacement C-130J Hercules departed RAAF Base Richmond on 1 March 2018 with ADF personnel to support the Government of PNG in transporting personnel and supplies to the affected region. 

PNG Assist by RAAF from on Vimeo.

In an article by Jaryd Stock and published on Aviation Photo Digest on February 23, 2018, the role of the RAAF in providing adi to the Pacific Islands was highlighted.

According to Stock, “A RAAF C-17A Globemaster flew a total of six flights that delivered approximately 140,000 kilograms of humanitarin aid and 30 ADF and civilian personnel to Tonga.

“In addition to the aid flights, a RAAF AP-3C Orion conducted, at the request of the Fiji Government, damage assessment flights over outlying fijan island son 14 and 16 February 2018.”


Building the Wings of Man: Another Aspect of the Coming of the CH-53K

2018-02-22 By Robbin Laird

Without the composites revolution, it would be difficult to image an Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

Equally, without the composites revolution it would be difficult to envisage the successor to the CH-53E being able to lift three times more than its predecessor.

The lift is a function of the engine and the new gearbox, but without the strength and performance capabilities provided by modern composites it would be difficult to imagine building the CH-53K.

During a visit to the Connecticut plant of Sikorsky, I had a chance to discuss the building of the K Blades within the Blade facility at the plant with Stephen Pawlowicz, General Manager, Blades Product Center.

Earlier, during a visit to the Boeing Philadelphia plant, Murielle Delaporte and I saw how important composites were to the functioning of the Osprey. It is clear as well that composites are a key enabling technology for the build and sustainment of the K as well.

Put in other words, a key manufacturing revolution has been necessary to provide the USMC with its core lift and assault aircraft.

The plant is preparing for the ramp up in production of the K blades, both main rotor and tail rotor blades, and because of the enhanced size of the blades compared to the E, modifications are being made to produce the new blades in the plant.

And because the K is an all composite blade compared to the legacy aircraft, large autoclave ovens are needed to make the blades as well.

Currently, there are two large 55 foot autoclaves on site to handle the blades but a second will be built as the ramp up accelerates.

In the facility, there is a ramp up as well of repairing E blades.

The E blade is built around a titanium core or spar.

The CH-53K King Stallion lands after a test flight in West Palm Beach, Fla. on March 22, 2017. Lockheed Martin announced the CH-53K King Stallion passed its Defense Acquisition Board assessment that approved for the aircraft to begin low-rate initial production on April 4, 2017. The CH-53K will be considered the most powerful helicopter in the Department of Defense and is scheduled to completely replace the CH-53E Super Stallion by 2030.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Molly Hampton)

According to Pawlowicz, the blades can be stripped down to the core and the outside of the blade can be redone 3 or 4 times during their lifecycle.

And the plant is doing such repairs at an increasing rate to meet demand from the USMC.

The K blade is all-composite and will not be repaired in such a manner.

It will be necessary to shape a way ahead with the repair of an all-composite blade to determine the optimal regime to sustain the maximum life cycle performance of the new composite blades.

Sikorsky will invest in new facilities to support the K ramp up to the tune of $60 million over the next few years, including the aforementioned autoclave facility.

And new workers are being added as the ramp up begins, and as the repairs to legacy aircraft, like the CH-53E and the Blackhawk continue to provide a strong demand for blade repairs.

NAVAIR works with Sikorsky on a PBL with regard to the Seahawks which is an important input for Sikorsky to plan for blade repairs for the aircraft; in the case of the US Army, repairs are provided by annual funding cycles and their surges and valleys to the demand signal which makes it more difficult for Sikorsky to plan out the blade repair function.

It is a function of how funding is generated for the Army and then parceled out to the contractor.

Of course, the Navy has a much smaller fleet to manage compared to the Army’s more than 2,000 Blackhawks.

The management of a larger fleet presents challenges of its own for certain.

The facility is a state of the art facility and will enable the ramp up of the K to unfold.

The aircraft has 11 blades –7 main rotor blades and 4 tail rotor blades.

For the workers at Sikorsky, it is a welcome sight to welcome the K.

The last E was built in the mid-1990s but since then the repairs such as the rebuild of the blades have kept the workforce in the heavy lift operation for the USMC.

With the coming of the K, and its future support requirements, the workers can look forward to a steady work flow going forward.

This is good for the USMC and it is good for industry.