Sea-Air-Space 2021, the first major international defense trade show since the Covid-19 pandemic grounded such events in March of 2020, is now in the books.
In case you missed it out of an abundance of caution or because it happened off-season, during Washington’s traditional August recess, here are seven show take aways:
- Call to Industry. Navy and Marine Corps leaders, military and civilian, lauded and repeatedly called on industry to bring commercial innovations and efficiencies to bear on the challenges facing the military. Chief of Naval Operation Admiral Michael Gilday asked contractors to be “a bit more agile” with technology and scolded industry for advancing its business objectives over the interests of the Navy: “Building the ships you want to build, lagging on repairs to ships, lobbying Congress to buy aircraft we don’t need, that are excess to need, is not helpful. It really isn’t in a budget-constrained environment.”
- Covid-19 Impact and Mitigation. A key theme at the show was describing both the challenges presented by Covid-19 and the heroic efforts of the Navy Team in meeting these challenges. As CNO Gilday observed, not a day was lost at a shipyard during Covid. Formal venue guidance at National Harbor was that masks were required for the unvaccinated and recommended for all. Our estimate is that 10-15% of the audience was masked. Several companies (including Lockheed Martin during at least part of the exposition) wore masks in their booths. At least one exhibitor was giving away masks, and you got the feeling that, with the Delta variant surging, we’ve haven’t seen the last of them.
- F/A-18E/F SuperHornet Modernization vs. New Buy. Senior Navy officials, in multiple venues, made clear why the Sea Service requested and prefers spending on its SuperHornet Service Life Modification (SLM) program rather than the addition of new airframes to its inventory. Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle (OPNAV N98) noted that he can upgrade three of his existing SuperHornets for the cost of a new SuperHornet and that new ones wouldn’t be viable through their expected 30-year, 10,000-hour service lives. “There isn’t a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that [out to 2055] timeframe.”
- Funding Outlook and CR Blues. Navy and Marine Corps leaders are planning for flat (at best) budgets moving forward and abhor the funding shackles (including no new starts) associated with operating under stopgap Continuing Resolution (CR) funding that has become the norm. Said Admiral John Gumbleton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget (N92): “There’s no goodness with a CR.” Put more strongly by Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command and recently confirmed as Assistant Commandant: “A Continuing Resolution is a gjft of a year to the adversary.”
- Putting the Joint in Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). There was a concerted effort by Navy leadership to confirm the Service’s commitment — if not yet its strong contribution — to cross-domain information sharing via its new Project Overmatch initiative in the way that the Air Force has demonstrated with its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) and the Army has with its Project Convergence. As CNO Gilday stated in the SAS’s opening panel: “We’re very excited about where it’s headed. We’re not satisfied with where we are. We have a way to go before we get to the point where we roll out strike group-wide in 2023.”
- Leveraging commercial space innovation for military application and advantage. Speakers stressed the imperative to leverage commercial innovation, investment, and capabilities in space for both communications and ISR. Shawn Barnes, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition & Integration said that it is commercial innovation that separates the western world from its adversaries, and that it is America’s true advantage.
- Marine Corps Force Transition via Force Design 2030. Marines Corps leadership is more adamant and confident than ever about the Service’s decision to “divest-to-invest” (divesting armor and breeching capability for greater expeditionary warfare capability) for the future. As the aforementioned USMC Lt. Gen. Eric Smith said: “We have to find out how to go after a pacing threat that is moving. How a small force can hold something at risk. We have divested what we can divest. We will produce the force we need by 2030.”