Skunk Works Boss Says He Can’t Comment On Video Of Mysterious Stealth Shape At Radar Test Range
The Skunk Works head separately said digital engineering has reduced aircraft build times by two-thirds as business has exploded in recent years.
Yesterday, Jeff Babione, the head of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division declined to comment in a somewhat cryptic way on a video that emerged last week showing what looked to be a stealthy, advanced fighter aircraft-like test shape at the company's secretive Helendale radar-cross section (RCS) measurement facility. Separately, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown said he was not aware of the clip and couldn't comment on it. Babione did, however, seem to confirm that the authenticity of the footage, which The War Zone was first to report on and that you can read more about in our initial story here.
Babione, the Skunk Works' Vice President and General Manager, offered his comments about the video of the test shape at Helendale during a discussion with Defense One's Marcus Weisgerber as part of a larger online event that the outlet hosted. Air Force Chief of Staff Brown offered his response during a separate one-on-one interview with Defense One's Tara Copp.
"Can you tell us anything about this?" Weisgerber asked. "I can't," Babione replied without offering any further explanation of what the test shape was. This response was somewhat curious, since one would think that if this was something non-sensitive, such as a test shape for calibration purposes, he would be able to simply say so.
"Has your security posture changed?" Weisgerber followed up with, given that Helendale is a highly sensitive facility and one would imagine that shooting personal videos about what goes there is a violation of protocol. "We're good," Babione said.
When Tara Copp asked Air Force Chief of Staff Brown later about the same video clip, which she described as a still photograph, he said he was "not aware of that particular photo" and couldn't comment on it.
It's interesting to note that Babione, who had otherwise been talking about how Skunks Works has changed and evolved in recent years, spent most of his time talking with Weisgerber via web conference sitting in front of a background showing an artist's conception of the X-59A Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) demonstrator aircraft, which Skunk Works is building for NASA, as well as a notional passenger plane derived from that design. At one point, however, the background changed to a different one, seen below, showing artwork depicting what appeared to be a stealthy unmanned aircraft without vertical tails.
Babione had otherwise been chatting to Weisgerber, along with Dr. Michael G. Smayda, a co-found founder of and the Chief Product Officer at hypersonic aviation startup Hermeus, about design and development processes, among other things. The Skunk Works boss had highlighted his division's significant expansion since 2017, driven in large part by Lockheed Martin receiving contracts for various unspecified classified projects. This is the largest period of growth for Skunk Works since it led the development of the X-35 prototype that evolved into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"Right after we won F-35 – 2001, we were relatively small as we began to prepare and win the next [contract]," Babione said. "That's really what happened in 2018 and 2019."
Since then, "quite simply put... it's exploded. We've grown by more than three times in total staff [and] really expanded our footprint," he explained, noting that Skunk Works has gone from being primarily based in Southern California, at Plant 42 in Palmdale, to also operating within Lockheed Martin facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Marietta, Georgia. This is "all in support of some new classified programs and the opportunity to win future business."
While Babione did not name any specific programs, we do know that Skunk Works is involved in a number of hypersonic weapon programs for various branches of the U.S. military. Many of those efforts date back to the late 2010s timeframe that the head of Skunk Works had said marked the beginning of Skunk Works' most recent growth in personnel and physical plant space.
Of course, Lockheed Martin has previously told The War Zone that 85 percent of what Skunk Works does is classified. We are aware of a number of other classified advanced aviation programs, including efforts that may be relevant to the Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which it is running now in addition to the hypersonic projects that have been publicly disclosed. There is even more work being done outside of the public eye.
Skunk Works' expansion in recent years is also part of a broader "digital transformation" within Lockheed Martin, as a whole, which is typified in the design of a new, highly automated advanced production facility that was recently opened at Plant 42 that you can read about more here. That specific facility is part of a major investment in new infrastructure that also includes tens of thousands of additional square feet of secure storage space for classified assets at Helendale, where the video of the mysterious test shape was shot.
An increased emphasis on digital engineering tools is another part of this company-wide transformation. "If I made a change to the structural aspects of the airplane, then someone else would go do an analysis, make their own models that says how did that change the aerodynamics," Babione explained to Weisgerber.
"And based on the aerodynamics change, there'd be loads change, and then that would come back me," he continued. "And all that was done kind of in a separate way."
This has all changed with the continued introduction of digital engineering tools at Lockheed Martin, including within Skunk Works. The company has named its particular toolset Stardrive, which you can learn more about here.
"So why do we care about that?" Babione asked rhetorically. "Well, it dramatically compresses the time between concept and capability."
"One metric that we look at is the hours per pound, so how long does it take to build something based on its weight. It's just a parameter that's commonly used in aircraft design," he said. "And we're seeing a two-thirds reduction in the time to build something. And that's dramatic. That not only compresses the time, obviously, but it reduces the cost, which then enables you to put more inside your factory, [and] ultimately pass lower costs on to the customer."
Babione did say that "you can't eliminate flight test" and highlighted how customer testing and other requirements, especially from the U.S. military, can still create bottlenecks. However, the idea is that digital engineering capabilities mean "we'll get to flight test faster" and that Skunk Works will be "only testing the points we absolutely need to," which will still help accelerate the entire process. He added that Skunk Works has already seen "tremendous gains in the speed [the development of assets] and ultimately reducing the cost of the assets that we're making."
Skunk Works projects aren't the only advanced military aerospace research and development efforts keeping the defense press and the general public preoccupied. There continues to be immense interest in when we will get our first real look at Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider stealth bomber. Last week, the Air Force revealed that there are five of these aircraft currently in various stages of production, three more than it had previously disclosed were being built.
“There will be a ceremony at some point – whether it’s for the very first one for the first flight, or a little later," Air Force Chief of Staff Brown told Tara Copp. "I’m sure we’ll do something special as we bring out the B-21.”
All told, while Babione, as well as Chief of Staff Brown, couldn't comment on whatever was seen in the video from Helendale, it is well in line with the kind of advanced aerospace projects, and the ability to get them to the prototype stage quickly, that Skunk Works is already well known for. The workload for Lockheed Martin's advanced projects division only continues to grow as the entire company looks toward its new digital future. At the same time, the U.S. military is pushing toward its own new phase of aerial combat capability, across the services, with various elements also likely to emerge publicly in the coming years.
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