Why Defense One Is Low On My Reading List

Maybe he had a bad day. A forgetful moment. Perhaps Defense One posted an early draft.

But Marcus Weisgerber’s recent article on Defense One seems, at best, very poorly researched and thought out. At worst, it’s poor journalism feeding into click-bait headlines.

The article itself seems innocent enough at first glance, if you’re not familiar with the topic. Boeing rolls out a new airplane, in partnership with Saab, to compete for a major military contract called “T-X”. The article asserts Boeing had to team with Saab  because layoffs left them needing additional talent. And teaming with a non-US firm for the airframe could be a major point of exposure for the supply chain and engineering collaboration. There’s even a quote from a defense industry observer.

Sounds good, right?

There’s only one problem- it’s pretty much wrong.

Boeing, like any large defense contractor, has had to contend with layoffs from time to time. Productions lines close down. Contracts end. It happens. It is an expected part of the business cycle.

But a company like Boeing does not let its talent go wily-nily. And their pockets are deep enough to hire talent if they do see shortcoming.

Certainly, bringing Saab in as a partner does not hurt in filling out the ranks of engineers. Saab is no slouch when it comes to build top notch fighter jets.

But that’s not the primary reason for teaming with Saab.

The real benefit Saab brings is expertise in focused, lean, on time and on budget production. Their primary customer is Sweden. The Swedish defense budget doesn’t even approach the US numbers. So Saab, in order to remain employed, had to figure out ways to build world class fighter planes efficiently.

Boeing knows this. They also know that winning the T-X contract is a key to the future of their St. Louis factory. While there will be orders for a few more F-15s and F-18s, to fulfill foreign orders, those have a fairly definite date of closure. And the KC-46 is built in Seattle. So this T-X contract can mean the difference in keeping a plant up and running for a couple of decades, or closing down within 10 years.

Bringing Saab on board will hopefully allow Boeing to deliver the absolute best aircraft possible- which is a costly thing to do- at the lowest price. Saab can be the key to potentially resolving that dichotomy.

So it’s not a lack of engineering talent, but rather a smart business move.

The other major blunder that makes me question this article is the focus on Saab building several major airframe components, and the challenges to production and engineering that could present.

As a quick geography aside, Saab is in Sweden. Sweden is across an ocean from the US. It’s not part of the US. Got it?

So that could impede communication, according to the article.

The article trots out a quote from a defense consulting firm that that points that out. Perhaps not as eloquently as I do, ahem, but point it out they do.

Yet that argument is a non-starter. Maybe if I point out a few amazing technologies that Boeing and Saab can take advantage of, I can make my point. Namely, airlines and the internet.

I know, it sounds crazy. But they could actually fly people in from Sweden to assist in all sorts of things. Maybe assembling Ikea furniture, or telling great snow jokes. Or maybe helping to optimize the manufacturing process and work with the engineering team.

Who knows, they might even relocate a few to St. Louis where they will live in actual houses. (And drive Saabs, I assume.)

And of course, they could try collaborating through the internet, sometimes known as the interwebs. Set up a secure VPN connection, and suddenly the big ocean separating us is shrunk considerably.

Yes, I’m being a bit snarky, but it is to prove a point. In today’s networked, connected, fly-around-the-world-in-a-day environment, that argument just doesn’t hold water.

Even if you say “A-ha! But perhaps their competitors won’t have to face that!”, you’d still be wrong. Lockheed Martin is working with KAI, which is in Korea. Raytheon is working with Leonardo, which is in Italy. Northrop Grumman is working with BAE in England. Everyone at the table is working with overseas firms, in a huge way.

This not only makes each team stronger, it also can potentially open up doors for additional non-US sales for the various partners. Saab already pursues foreign sales for its Gripen fighter. Leonardo does so for its M-346, which is essentially the T-100 Raytheon/Leonardo are hoping to sell. Lockheed Martin partnered with KAI years ago for the T-50, and while it is already making some headway with export orders, a win in T-X could potentially boost that. And Northrop Grumman/BAE could potentially sell their aircraft as the next generation Hawk, which BAE has relied on for years.

So while the Air Force plans to buy 350 airframes from whoever comes out as winner, potential foreign sales could be double or triple that. In fact, as budgets get tighter, it would not be surprising to see the winner evolve into a light strike fighter for many international customers- and possibly even the US. Both the T-50 and M346/T-100 are already filling this role in some way. (For example, the Philippine Air Force has taken delivery of about a dozen FA-50s, the light strike fighter variant of the T-50.)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I read Defense One much like I read RT news- occasionally there is some good stuff, but most of the time reports are either so heavily spun or so poorly researched that at best it’s only a little better than tabloid news.

But this one really made me shake my head. Even just a quick read on Wikipedia would have cleared up some of the questions. And I’ve heard the Google thing can be helpful too.

Sometimes it’s tough being an arm chair analyst.

3 comments

  1. They make great trucks too!

    lol – great post Jon. It does seem a rather stupid article. I used to work for LM in the UK and the majority of the projects were transatlantic – it’s pretty much the norm these days.

    Cheers

    Stuart

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