AW&ST Editors' Picks 20210903
Welcome to this week's editors' picks. A weekly digital experience highlighting the must-see content from Aviation Week & Space Technology
<b><i>From the future of open-rotor engines to forces impinging the defense industry. </b>
A roundup of Aviation Week & Space Technology you cannot miss this week.
Letter From The Editor
See the highlights from this week's issue and get tips on how to use the document.
Letter From The Editor
Welcome to the latest edition of Editors’ Picks, a newsletter exclusively tailored for subscribers of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Each Friday our editors select the week’s best digital content – articles, interviews, opinion columns, podcasts and webinars – as a supplement to your print magazine.
See the highlights from this week's edition which include >>
What does the return of open-rotor engines mean for the future of conventional turbofans?
The Rolls-Royce Ultrafan is the first fundamental change to the company’s direct-drive three-shaft architecture since the 1960s.
New Chinese ICBM silos cause U.S. military commanders to reshape their approach to deterrence.
Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft prepares for a key uncrewed NASA Artemis test mission.
The space and defense supply chains are showing signs of COVID-19-related stress.
Twenty years after the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, what are the forces impinging on the defense industry?
A look at the making of small satellites at Blue Canyon Technologies.
That and more are in this week's selection of Editors' Picks. I hope you enjoy the selection and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Executive Editor, Defense & Space
Aviation Week & Space Technology
Jump to any article using the contents menu at the top left hand corner of this document. There, you can also download this experience as a PDF. For a full list of content published this week, go to
Gearbox Sets Record Prior To UltraFan Installation
Despite supply chain slowdowns, the UltraFan demonstrator comes together as supporting tests continue.
Gearbox Sets Record Prior To UltraFan Installation
The large scale of the UltraFan is apparent as titanium outlet guide vanes are fitted into a test version of the composite fan case. Credit: Rolls-Royce
As components for the first Rolls-Royce UltraFan demonstrator continue to come together at the company’s Derby, England, headquarters, the gearbox assembly at the heart of the new high-bypass engine has set a record-breaking level of power transmission during preinstallation checkout tests.
- Turbine is set for durability demo
- Test gearbox is in final checks
The gear system transfers power from the fast-spinning intermediate-pressure (IP) turbine to drive the slower-turning fan, allowing both to operate at their optimum speeds, and that is key to meeting the enhanced propulsive efficiency targets of the UltraFan. The new engine will be the first Rolls large turbofan to incorporate a power gearbox (PGB) and represents the first fundamental change to the company’s direct-drive three-shaft architecture since the RB211 was designed in the 1960s.
Developed in partnership with Liebherr-Aerospace through the Aerospace Transmission Technologies joint venture, the standard PGB transmitted 64 megawatts—the equivalent of 85,800 hp—during tests at Rolls-Royce’s dedicated facility in Dahlewitz, Germany. “[The power level is] a massive tick in the box to say it’s ready to support the engine demonstrator program,” says Andy Geer, chief engineer of UltraFan product development and technology at Rolls-Royce.
“The PGB operation extended beyond the sea level maximum takeoff power levels that would be associated with a product of around 80,000-lb.-thrust capability in order to cover the needs of the upcoming UltraFan demo sea level engine-test regime,” Geer says. “This will take test engines beyond service-representative thrust levels to fully explore capability. So far, the PGB has operated to conditions about 10% beyond a service maximum takeoff thrust condition,” he adds.
For the high-power test, Rolls engineers ran the unit until it was fully thermally stabilized—a test that typically takes about 10 min. to reach the target condition. “One of the other things we’ve done with the power gearbox is a demonstration flight cycle in which we simulated a flight from London to New York,” Geer says. “This was representative of a flight cycle, including takeoff, climb, cruise and descent and all the operating conditions of that cycle.”
Pictured from the core side, the demonstrator’s combined power gearbox and front bearing housing are instrumented prior to preshipment tests in Germany. Credit: Rolls-Royce
The gearbox for the first demonstrator, UF001, is meanwhile set to begin a final pass-off test in Germany in early September before being shipped to the UK for integration into the engine. “The size of the thing is impressive—the power gearbox module with its surrounding engine structure is about the same size as a Tay engine—so it’s a big brute,” he continues. “We are desperately keen to get the unit over and built into the engine now.”
Like many other parts of the demonstrator, Rolls originally hoped to induct the module by midyear. But delays caused mostly by supplier disruption attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic have inevitably pushed back the schedule for final engine assembly. “It has been an unprecedentedly difficult period of time to be bringing lots of parts through the supply chain, and we continue to struggle with that,” Geer adds. “I’m not going to count my chickens, but hopefully we’ll be there by the end of the year. If not, we’ll be very close, and it’ll be into early next year.”
Trial installation of the composite fan case, with titanium outlet guide vanes and metal support ring, is also underway in advance of the unit’s arrival for the demonstrator engine from Rolls’ composite production site in Bristol, England. “That is going through some instrumentation attachment and will be brought up to Derby and take over where this one leaves off quite shortly,” he says.
Assembly of IP and high-pressure compressor modules is also underway in the company’s DemoWorks facility—a refurbished experimental build shop in Derby where a center of excellence has been set up for building the UltraFan demonstrator engines. “We did that very consciously to have focus and to wrap a team tightly around the engine so that they get to know the parts very well,” Geer explains. “It’s obviously different than a Trent, both in the component parts and its build sequence. So we wanted to have a team that [could] rapidly get familiar with it and [become] experts in its construction.”
All 18 composite fan blades for the initial demonstrator are now assembled and undergoing instrumentation work for the installation of strain gauges. The fan set will be one of the final parts of the engine buildup sequence to be completed late this year, Geer says.
Multistage drum assemblies of the first UltraFan high-pressure compressor are pictured prior to integration in the DemoWorks. Credit: Rolls-Royce
Other supporting efforts for UltraFan technology test and development, meanwhile, continue in parallel with the main engine demonstrator. These measures are mainly centered on the high-temperature turbine (HT3) demonstrator and Advance3 engine tests. The HT3 is based on a modified Trent XWB-97 and is “about to run,” Geer says. Designed to prove out hot-section technology for the UltraFan, the high-pressure turbine of the donor engine has been replaced with a new module that incorporates advanced blade and vane configurations with enhanced cooling channels produced through the company’s cast-bond process.
“It’s essentially a production-standard engine into which we introduce these novel parts,” he adds. “It’s got no instrumentation in it because the engine is intended to be a durable platform to do cyclic and high-temperature proving of these new pieces of technology.” In addition to supporting UltraFan, the initiative could pave the way for future Trent upgrade packages, Geer says.
Rolls is also rebuilding the Advance3 demonstrator, which is being used to prove out the new high-pressure core for the UltraFan. Sandwiched between the conventional fan system of a Trent XWB-84 Airbus A350 engine and the low-pressure turbine of a Trent 1000 Boeing 787 engine, the core is about to enter its second major test effort. “The second phase of Advance3 is to precede the first test of the UltraFan engine,” Geer says. “Risk-wise, it makes sense to learn what we can get from this vehicle, before we run UltraFan, so the race is on to do that. It’s going through the DemoWorks organization to be built up [and be] ready for test again very early in 2022.”
“We learned a lot from Advance3 in the first build, and this is a chance now to push the engine harder beyond the operating envelope we ran it through before,” he says. “We shall give it more challenges and a bit more ‘rough stuff,’ if you like, in terms of pushing the engine beyond its normal operating steady-state data collection mode.” Testing will include transient operation handling characteristics and other non-normal conditions.
Pratt & Whitney And Rolls-Royce Downplay CFM Open-Fan Threat
CFM’s open-fan plan grabbed the headlines, but its dependence on gear development has the attention of Pratt and Rolls.
Pratt & Whitney And Rolls-Royce Downplay CFM Open-Fan Threat
Shorter inlets, like this Pratt & Whitney test unit, are under study to further improve ducted-turbofan efficiency. Credit: Pratt & Whitney
Absent for 20 years, open-rotor engines are back on the power agenda for next-generation single-aisle aircraft. What does that mean for the future of conventional turbofans, geared or otherwise, and how might that technology influence the trajectory of tomorrow’s large-engine designs?
These and other questions follow CFM International’s recent seismic decision to focus on an open-fan demonstrator as the most promising route toward a more sustainable successor to today’s medium-thrust turbofans. Aftershocks from the June announcement are still rumbling through the industry and already appear to have factored into the apparent slowdown of Boeing’s next all-new airliner studies.
- RISE affirms geared engines, CFM competitors say
- Integration, certification and noise challenges face open-fan design
The General Electric and Safran joint venture program, called Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines (RISE), targets a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions compared with current engines and is squarely aimed at a successor to the current Leap 1 turbofan in the 20,000-35,000-lb.-thrust class. The demonstrator program is expected to culminate in 2024-25 with flight tests of a single-stage, gear-driven fan paired with active stators in a tractor configuration—a design never previously tested at full scale.
Yet the RISE effort, which incorporates planned tests of a rotor more than 12 ft. in diameter, is about far more than just the propulsor. The demonstrator program will also include a suite of disruptive technologies that support CFM’s long-term sustainability goals. Among these technologies are multiple new combustor designs to ensure future compatibility with both sustainable aviation fuels and liquid hydrogen. The program also embraces the integration of motors and starter-generators for hybrid-electric adaptation.
Beyond these features, RISE will also include the test and development of a compact high-pressure core to boost thermodynamic efficiency as well as a recuperating system to preheat combustion air with waste heat from the exhaust. In addition, the demonstrator will incorporate the use of advanced materials such as ceramic matrix composites in the hot section and resin-transfer-molded composite fan blades.
Other than the overall open-fan concept itself, however, most if not all these technology areas are also being tackled in some form or other by competitors Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce. The big “new” area, as CFM’s challengers see it, is the low-pressure turbine-driven gearbox interposed between the booster (compressor) and the rotating fan stage.
“It’s still a geared turbofan [GTF]—they downplay that aspect of it—but you cannot make that configuration without a gear configuration,” says Michael Winter, senior fellow for advanced technology at Pratt & Whitney. “In essence, this really is a full-on affirmation that geared turbofans are the future—full stop.” If the open fan does not prove feasible for various aeromechanical or certification-related reasons, the baseline development would also clearly support an alternate ducted, geared-fan configuration. CFM declined to be interviewed for this story, but speaking for Pratt, Winters says: “That is consistent with our assessment.”
After more than a decade of research in Europe and the U.S. into optimized blade designs for aeroacoustics, noise is no longer considered a showstopper for open rotors. Although acoustic challenges remain, the focus is shifting to the equally significant hurdles of integration, mechanical complexity and certification.
CFM believes integration with conventional tube-and-wing configurations will be easier because the overall diameter of its open-fan design has shrunk. When open rotors were tested and flown in the 1980s, they required fans up to 16 ft. in diameter to match the power of a midthrust engine, compared with a planned diameter of just more than 12 ft. for RISE. Although this represents a significant improvement, it still presents an installation challenge for wing mounting on aircraft such as the current single-aisle generation. The Leap 1A on the Airbus A320neo, which is enclosed in a 8.3-ft.-deep nacelle, has a ground clearance of just over 1.5 ft.
Much of CFM’s RISE technology will be equally applicable to an open-fan or geared engine. Credit: CFM International
Even if an open fan is cantilevered up and forward of the wing, Winters says the turbulent wake of the rotor will mitigate against many of the aerodynamic advantages planned for the efficient high-aspect-ratio wing designs under study for next-generation aircraft. “One way Boeing picked up so much efficiency on the 787 wing was by maintaining laminar flow for much of the front section,” he says.
“If you think about where Boeing wants to go with a truss-braced wing in that same time frame—the company’s ongoing transonic truss-braced wing (TTBW) concept study with NASA—it’s a really long, really thin wing,” Winters says. “And for all intents and purposes, I believe it’s assuming laminar flow.” This aerodynamic advantage, he adds, would likely be lost in the wake downstream of an open fan.
Another major integration hurdle will be protecting the structure from blade loss and subsequent imbalance forces, Winter says. Plans to flight-test the Safran-developed counter-rotating open-rotor test engine—the forerunner to RISE—on an Airbus A340 flying testbed were shelved in 2017 after concerns arose about airframe strengthening and weight gain around the tail to counter potential blade separation events.
Winter says open rotors might represent a more significant installation challenge for advanced configurations such as the TTBW. “That truss is a safety-critical structure, and you’ve got this big whirling mass right next to it with the possibility of losing a blade. So you have to worry about the imbalance loads and the structural mass associated with coping with those,” he adds.
CFM notes, however, that the demonstrator will also pave the way for development of a certified product, various issues for which were considered as early as 2015 in a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) notice of proposed amendment. “The open-rotor concept is not intended to be certified as a propeller-engine installation,” EASA says. “Due to the complex integration, it is instead intended to be certified as an integrated engine concept.”
Based on current airframe and engine certification requirements, the open-fan propulsion system is likely to meet existing turboprop rules, under which the propeller manufacturer has to demonstrate, by design and tests, that a fan blade will not detach. In addition, the system will also have to meet current requirements on blade pitch control and avoiding overspeed conditions. Blade-off requirements similar to current turbofan regulations will also be a factor.
Rolls-Royce, which has bet its future on the geared, ducted UltraFan family, is also skeptical about the prospects for the broader applicability of the open-fan concept. “The ducted fan is far and away the most versatile, and an entirely necessary, solution,” says Andy Geer, chief engineer of UltraFan product development and technology. “You can come up with open-rotor and maybe open-fan configurations for bespoke short-range small airplane applications, perhaps, but only if those applications can tolerate the installation challenges and the sort of cruise-speed limitations that are likely to go with that kind of architecture.”
The issue becomes even more critical with the increasing scale necessary for higher-power needs. Geer says the flow physics for such a requirement demands that for the same overall thrust, the open-fan engine will have roughly twice the diameter of a ducted fan. “Our view is neither of those compromises would work in a widebody, long-range application. Realistically, they’re completely outclassed by an UltraFan ducted turbofan on [such an] application,” he adds.
“There seems to be a fundamental divide from our perspective,” Geer continues. “From a cruise-speed limitation perspective, unless you’re prepared to push an open-rotor system to very high tip speeds to try to overcome some of the shortfalls of not being ducted, you will gain speed. But as soon as you do that, you’ve got a noise problem.”
As Rolls-Royce prepares to begin ground tests of the first UltraFan demonstrator in early 2022 and Pratt works on a road map of upgrades to the GTF, it appears that neither company plans to change course or alter its development strategy as a result of CFM’s RISE initiative. Yet the two manufacturers are in very different positions: Rolls is years away from debuting the new engine and has yet to secure an application for its UltraFan, while Pratt is building on a bridgehead established with an engine family that first ran in ground tests as far back as 2007.
The UltraFan’s large size is evident in this artist’s concept of an engine on the assembly line. Credit: Rolls-Royce
In the near term, Pratt is preparing to launch an upgrade package for the PW1100G version that will provide the option of additional thrust for heavier weight applications, such as the Airbus A321XLR, while maintaining time on wing. The focus is on delivering additional power and reliability rather than lower fuel burn, Winter says.
“The beauty is that we do have that technology and we could take advantage of it, but we don’t have to,” he adds. “We could change the gear ratio and get a lot more performance, but we chose to optimize on what the customer values. That’s not only efficiency—it’s also time on wing and thrust.”
Down the line, Pratt is evaluating further improvements, including short duct inlets and adapting the PW1000G family for a more electric future. The short duct work, which would help reduce the weight and drag of the nacelle, would build on earlier tests of advanced inlets conducted as part of the FAA’s CLEEN environmental program. Plans to develop the engine into a parallel turboelectric hybrid include adding a motor-starter generator mounted on the engine’s high-pressure spool and a motor generator on the low-pressure spool.
These plans will leverage NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration project, under which Pratt hopes to play a key role in flight testing a megawatt-class electric-aircraft-propulsion system on its Boeing 747SP flying testbed. The program forms part of NASA’s broader aviation sustainability strategy and aims to mature propulsion systems for thin-haul, regional and single-aisle aircraft that could enter service by 2035.
To accelerate the process and mature powertrain technology to a level ready to enter product development and certification in the late 2020s, NASA intends to use existing or planned industry flying testbeds and is expected to issue contracts later this year.
Dubai Airshow To Reflect Dubai's Role In The Industry's Recovery
<i>Sponsored By Dubai Airshow</i>
The Dubai Airshow 2021, set to take place from 14-18 November 2021, serves as a key indicator of Dubai’s success in overcoming the challenges that the pandemic has posed while creating opportunities for global business.
Dubai Airshow To Reflect Dubai's Role In The Industry's Recovery
Sponsored by Dubai Airshow
Credit: Dubai Airshow
The Dubai Airshow 2021, set to take place from 14-18 November 2021, serves as a key indicator of Dubai’s success in overcoming the challenges that the pandemic has posed, and moving in the right direction towards achieving a full recovery of the aviation industry.
Commenting on the progress that Dubai’s aviation sector has made following the pandemic, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group said: “We have crossed many significant milestones this year despite the difficult period. Dubai has been a symbol of resilience and agility in responding to the challenges that the pandemic brought, and we are confident that the collaborative work done by the sector’s key players to restore consumer confidence and boost travel operations will pave the way for a thriving aviation industry. Dubai Airshow 2021 will serve as the ultimate testament to the industry’s steady recovery and growth and firmly establish Dubai as the leading global aerospace hub.”
Major Gen. Staff Pilot Ishaq Saleh Al Baloushi, Military Advisor to State Minister of Defence and Executive Director for Military Committee for Dubai Airshow: “For many years we have been collaborating and working closely with different defence delegations from across the world for the Dubai Airshow. This engagement has continued virtually throughout the pandemic, and we are now planning on having in-person meetings and sessions at the Airshow itself. With the positive sentiment within the industry and the appetite for business continuity, we believe the Airshow will provide the ideal event for strategic development and the creation of new partnerships.
Taking centre stage will be the different technologies that enhance safety and accelerate efficiency. They will play a key role in the aviation, aerospace and defence industries getting back to business following the pandemic. A great experience awaits the industry as they once again gear up to network, discuss the future of the industry and do business at the Dubai Airshow. There will be a high number of attendees from the defence industry at the Airshow and we are very much looking forward to meeting them during the event.”
The UAE recently started opening quarantine-free travel corridors with multiple countries across the world, which counts as a major step for bringing a higher influx of travellers and tourists. In addition, Dubai Airports recently re-opened Dubai International’s (DXB)Terminal 1, following a 15-month closure, as part of its plan to ensure the airport’s full operational readiness. DXB is targeting 28 million passengers in 2021.
To be held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defence, Dubai Airshow 2021 will take place at Dubai World Central (DWC), Dubai Airshow Site from the 14-18 November 2021.
Dubai Airshow 2021 will be held with the support of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Dubai Airports, the UAE Ministry of Defence and Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects, and organised by Tarsus Middle East. The highly anticipated event will provide a platform where international aerospace and defence entities can gather and convene to drive the recovery of the global aviation and aerospace industry.
Opinion: Three Waves Of Change Shaping The Defense Industry
</i>Twenty years after 9-11, a look at the forces driving future strategic choices.
Opinion: Three Waves Of Change Shaping The Defense Industry
Credit: Haumaru/Getty Images
The messy withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan heightens attention to the milestone that is this month’s 20th anniversary of al-Qaida’s attack on New York and Washington.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reshaped nearly every dimension of U.S. national security posture, including the defense industry. An industrial sector poised to spearhead then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “transformation” to dissuade the rise of a peer competitor was, after 9/11, refocused onto counterinsurgency, homeland security and nation-building. And while the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom in August 2010 might have allowed industry to slew its capabilities back to the agenda of peer competition, enactment in that very same month of the Budget Control Act of 2011 stunted for another decade the resources and managerial attention required to fully enact that strategy.
With the Pentagon now free of the constraints of the Budget Control Act and focused squarely on peer competition in the Asia-Pacific region, corporate strategists should be trying to gain clarity about a profound change now building in the business of defense.
As Richard Rumelt, professor emeritus at the University of California-Los Angeles, observes in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: “The challenge is not forecasting but understanding [that] . . . [o]ut of the myriad shifts and adjustments that occur each year, some are clues to the presence of a substantial wave of change and, once assembled into a pattern, point to the fundamental forces at work. The evidence lies in plain sight, waiting for you to read its deeper meanings.”
But where to look for the evidence? Rumelt cites five guideposts to anticipating waves of industry-wide change, in three of which I recognize some forces already buffeting the defense industry.
Rising Fixed Costs
The simplest indicator of an imminent transition is when fixed costs, especially product-development costs, begin rising rapidly, Rumelt contends. For example, the transition in aircraft propulsion from piston to jet engines in the late 1940s rapidly winnowed a multitude of players down to the three we know still today—GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce. The formation in 2020 of Raytheon Technologies is a leading indicator that sustained competitive advantage in defense prime contracting now requires a super-size balance sheet to keep up with the product-development bets being made by companies with more than $100 billion of enterprise value or deep-pocketed investors backing them.
A transition instigated by changes in government policy, especially deregulation, is a second guidepost that is also apparent today. Rumelt references the deregulation of air transport beginning in the late 1970s, which brought intense price competition to an airline industry accustomed to differentiating on service. Current Pentagon acquisition strategies are aiming to separate development from production, which would fundamentally challenge the business model on which prime contracting is staked. The best known example of this is former Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper’s concept for developing and building a “Century Series” generation of air dominance fighters. But no less an encrusted acquisition system than the U.S. Army’s has revamped its thrice-canceled program to replace the Bradley M-2 with an acquisition strategy that envisions a fresh open competition, rather than a downselect, at each phase of the program’s development.
A third guidepost in view today concerns what Rumelt calls the attractor state, which “describes how the industry ‘should’ work . . . [to meet] the needs and demands of buyers as efficiently as possible.” To illustrate the power of an attractor state, Rumelt recounts the late-1990s rise of Cisco Systems to dominance in internet working by its response to customers’ demand for “IP everywhere,” a standard that rendered incumbents’ proprietary networks obsolete. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten’s oft-cited expectations for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is the defense customer’s articulation of an attractor state for battle-management networking if there ever was one.
This month’s Afghanistan milestone should serve as a timely reminder of how waves of change can suddenly culminate in an inflection that disrupts the carefully crafted strategic postures of companies as well as nations.
The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.
China’s Nuclear Expansion Prompts Strategic Reassessment
A discovery of ICBM silos in China has prompted a warning from U.S. Strategic Command about the future balance of nuclear competition.
China’s Nuclear Expansion Prompts Strategic Reassessment
The public revelation this summer that China is building hundreds of silos that may be intended as ICBM launch sites has prompted a fundamental rethink of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy. Credit: Planet/Middlebury Institute of International Studies
A U.S. military official has warned that China soon will leapfrog Russia as the Defense Department’s top nuclear threat, amplifying a yearlong, rapid reappraisal of Beijing’s capabilities and intentions.
The assessment conducted by Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, includes a call to break from classifying threats based solely on the size of a nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads.
- China will eclipse Russia as primary nuclear threat, U.S. military official says
- Crossover point could happen in a “few years”
Despite signs of a furious nuclear expansion, China’s assessed stockpile of 200-350 nuclear weapons still remains a distant third behind the size of the U.S. (5,550) and Russian (6,257) warhead inventories.
But Strategic Command believes the numbers disparity masks a strategic drive by China to move beyond the country’s stated “minimum deterrence” posture as quickly as possible.
“China can no longer be considered a lesser-included case, and will soon surpass Russia’s capability and become the leading nuclear threat,” Bussiere said, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.
Asked by Aviation Week to define what he meant by “soon,” Bussiere’s response suggested a timeline well within this decade.
“There will be a crossover point, we believe, in the next few years, Bussiere said.
That crossover moment will not be defined by a number. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China does not disclose its quantity of nuclear warheads—whether in active or storage status. But Strategic Command’s view of the nuclear threat that China presents is not limited to its volume of warheads.
“We don’t necessarily approach it from a pure numbers game,” Bussiere said. “It is what is operationally fielded: the readiness status of those forces, the posture of those forces and the intent of that posture of those fielded forces. So it’s not just a stockpile number. It’s a much more informed decision.”
The assessment takes into actcount recent public disclosures. Over a monthlong period from late June to late July, two teams of U.S.-based researchers identified 250 new construction sites for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos at two different locations near China’s northwest border with Mongolia. The sites add to more than 100 ICBM silos already operational in China.
The open-source discoveries enabled by commercial satellite imagery are reshaping public understanding of China’s plans for its nuclear arsenal. The scale of the investment in ICBM launch infrastructure came with little warning.
In September 2020, the Defense Department’s annual China Military Power Report projected that China was expected to field a total of 200 warheads on a small, land-based ICBM force. China’s overall stockpile was projected to roughly double in size over the next decade, but still fall dramatically short of U.S. and Russian capabilities.
Satellite imagery revealed an unannounced Chinese construction site for an intercontinental ballistic missile silo deep in the country’s western desert. Credit: Planet/Middlebury Institute of International Studies
But the military’s understanding of China’s nuclear ambitions appeared to be evolving even as the report was being written. By April 2020, Adm. Charles Richard, commander of Strategic Command, offered a more urgent warning during testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. China’s stockpile was now “well ahead of the pace necessary to double their nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade,” Richard said.
The pace of China’s investments in new nuclear delivery systems is “breathtaking,” Richard added. In 2019 and 2020 alone, China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force fired more than 400 ballistic missiles for test and evaluation purposes, a total larger than the rest of the world combined over the same period, according to U.S. Strategic Command.
The flurry of experiments coincided with the fielding of the road-mobile and silo-based DF-41 ICBM last year, supplementing ongoing deliveries of the DF-31A. Six Jin-class ballistic missile submarines armed with JL-2s pose a sea-based threat. Finally, the Xian H-6N bomber, meanwhile, was shown in 2020 for the first time carrying a nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missile, adding an airborne leg to a newly formed nuclear triad.
“The rapid diversification and expansion of Chinese nuclear capabilities—whether those are road-mobile [ICBMs], recently discovered ICBM fields, [or] the multitude of short-, medium- and long-range capabilities that they’re developing—[means] there’s going to be a crossover point where the number of threats presented by China will exceed the number of threats that Russia currently presents,” Bussiere said.
But some experts challenge Strategic Command’s philosophy that posture and intent are at least as important, if not more so, than a simple count of a country’s warhead stockpile.
Despite Bussiere’s beliefs, “size does matter,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, which discovered the first Chinese ICBM silo field in late June.
In Lewis’ view, China’s newly revealed nuclear expansion still falls short of a sea change in the balance of nuclear threats against the U.S.
“My view is that China is probably adding ICBMs to ensure that it has a retaliatory capability that could survive an American attack in large enough numbers to overwhelm the missile defenses in Alaska and California,” Lewis says.
The U.S. still has options even if China maximizes its nuclear capacity over the next several years, Lewis says. Although the U.S. owns a stockpile of 5,550 nuclear warheads, only 1,700 are allowed to be operationally deployed under the New START Treaty with Russia. That gives the U.S. stockpile a hedge of nearly 4,000 warheads, which could be uploaded to deployed status to counter any feasible scenario of Chinese expansion, he adds.
Accepting a set of “heroic assumptions” about China’s ability to rapidly manufacture new warheads, filling each of about 360 silos with a missile carrying six warheads over the next few years would still yield a total stockpile of less than 3,000 warheads, Lewis says.
“Even in this case, the U.S. could upload its ‘hedge,’ and the Chinese would still be short of parity,” Lewis says. “China can’t really overcome that disparity with intent or posture. You’ve either got the bombs or you don’t.”
However, Strategic Command considers the problem to be far more complex. Leadership sees a Chinese nuclear complex aggressively expanding, with no public explanation from Beijing and none of the bilateral tools created in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union in place to avoid misunderstandings.
“You’ve got to be humble in your ability to predict this [situation],” said Richard, speaking at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute on Aug. 26.
In addition to facing a three-sided nuclear competition in the future, Strategic Command also must consider the possibility that China could extend its arsenal further by coordinating with Russia’s nuclear forces.
“We probably need to go dust off our history and look at it,” Richard said. “There is at least one historic example where the Soviet Union somewhat unexpectedly provided an extended deterrence guarantee to China: in the middle of the 1958 Taiwan crisis.”
The debate over China’s intentions comes amid a Nuclear Posture Review by the administration of President Joe Biden, which is reexamining the $1 trillion nuclear modernization program launched by former President Barack Obama and expanded under former President Donald Trump. The Northrop Grumman Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, which seeks to replace the Minuteman III missile as the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, is a potential target of the review, with calls by some Democrats in Congress to defer the acquisition program or eliminate it altogether.
As the U.S. military leadership argues that preserving the nuclear triad is necessary, China’s documented expansion has emerged as a key talking point.
“The actual requirements in the recapitalization of that triad were set in a much more benign strategic environment of five or six years ago, when the threat from Russia was not perceived as what it is today, and China truly was a lesser-included case,” Richard said. “Those conditions have changed dramatically.”
Orion Crew Module Poised For Artemis I Integration
Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft prepares for upgrades as plans for the NASA Artemis I test mission enter the home stretch.
Orion Crew Module Poised For Artemis I Integration
The heat-shield skin for Artemis III, pictured after autoclave curing in Lockheed Martin’s facility in Sunnyvale, California, will be completed by adding interior titanium stiffeners and ablative Avcoat blocks to the exterior. Credit: Lockheed Martin
If all goes to according to plan, Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft will be moving to the vast Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center as early as mid-September in preparation for completion of NASA’s first—and much-anticipated—Space Launch System rocket.
While it remains unclear if the vehicle can still be launched in time to conduct the uncrewed Artemis I deep-space test mission by the agency’s year-end target, the integration of the spacecraft, together with its launch abort stack and European-built service module, is in itself a major program step, says Michael Hawes, vice president and Orion program manager at Lockheed Martin.
- Crew module set for mid-September move to Artemis I stacking
- First parts for Artemis V entering production flow
“It’s going to be a huge milestone,” says Hawes, speaking to Aviation Week at the recent Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We still have some internal work that we’ll still have to do, but it will actually be in the [Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)], and we’ll have an entire Artemis I stack here in just a few weeks.”
At the start of September, crews at the Launch Abort System Facility were preparing to install the last of four ogive fairings that cover the Orion module and protect the crew from sound and vibration during launch. The panels, one of which incorporates a hatch for crew access, will detach from the Space Launch System (SLS) when the 44-ft.-tall launch abort system is jettisoned shortly after liftoff. Once all four panel sections are installed, the entire Orion assembly will move to the VAB for integration.
Ogive panels for the Orion Artemis I mission were installed inside the Launch Abort Facility at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA
Behind the scenes, other preparations have begun in the build-up to launch. On Aug. 30, NASA completed the first power-up of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and other propulsion systems, representing the next phase of the integrated test and checkout campaign.
Following assembly, the SLS stack is due to move to Launch Complex 39B for a wet dress rehearsal. In this exercise, the rocket will be filled with fuel and will undergo a complete launch sequence simulation that covers everything but engine ignition. The vehicle will then return to the VAB for final preparations and closeouts.
The industrial and NASA SLS support teams are also setting up for mission operations. Commenting on a program board meeting held at the end of August, Hawes says: “One of the things we approved was a mission support plan in terms of where the engineers will be: Who’s out in Denver, who’s going to be at the launch [and] who’s going to be in Houston, in terms of their formal mission roles. Those are the things that you do close into launch, so that’s really got the excitement going.”
Meanwhile, Lockheed is refining plans for a three-step upgrade program for the initial batch of crew vehicles and follow-on production units. “First and foremost is the upgrade from vehicle one to [vehicle ] two, which rolls in the full suite of life support equipment—that’s mostly the air revitalization system for CO2 scrubbing, oxygen and nitrogen,” says Hawes. “We add those components that are really tied to the crew, so we add display screens and the hand controllers.”
Following the first crewed flight with Artemis II, a four-person lunar flyby mission, further upgrades are planned for the subsequent Artemis III lunar landing mission. “[Vehicle] two to three is adding the docking system,” Hawes says. “Artemis III we will dock to either the Gateway, or we go back to a lander. After that, the vehicle is pretty stable.”
The third upgrade phase is mainly targeted at enhancing reusability. “We already will reuse from [vehicle] one to two by using about half the avionics,” he adds. “But, the challenge there is that ties us to some of the components with, as we say, an iron bar between one and two. And after we fly Artemis III, the module structure will get reused in vehicle six [for Artemis VI]—although there will be some components still swapped out.”
Beyond this third “bucket” of upgrades, Lockheed is conducting studies to further increase reusability that include using conformal coating connectors to protect equipment that is housed between the pressure vessel and the back shell. That area of the spacecraft is not watertight, and the use of conformal connectors will “significantly diminish the impact of the salt [environment],” Hawes says.
Operational changes are also being studied to minimize exposure to the saltwater atmosphere after splashdown and during refurbishment. “How quickly do we get it from the ground team and the Navy?” Hawes adds. “How quickly can we get into cleaning it, purging and pulling the systems apart so that we know what’s there to be done? We have a good plan that we started—we call it component-level reuse and module-level reuse—but we still think there’s more. And that’s a big factor in making the system more sustainable and affordable in the long term.”
All of the improvements will be incorporated into the production units ordered in 2019 under NASA’s Orion Production and Operations Contract. Under the terms of this indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) deal, NASA initially placed orders for three spacecraft for Artemis missions III-V worth $2.7 billion. The agency also plans to order three additional Orion spacecraft during fiscal 2022, for Artemis missions VI-VIII, that will cost an additional $1.9 billion. Up to six more Orion spacecraft may be ordered through Sept. 30, 2030, under the IDIQ contract.
Welding of the pressure vessel for the Orion spacecraft on the Artemis III mission was completed in late August. The unit is expected to be transferred in early October from Lockheed’s Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans to the company’s expanding Kennedy Space Center site in Florida. The company has also completed the composite-skinned Avcoat ablative heat shield that integrates blocks of the resin and fiberglass matrix into a titanium skeleton frame.
“A big objective of this mission is demonstrating full lunar-return-speed capability,” says Hawes, referencing the 5,200F peak temperature the Orion heat shield is expected to encounter as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere at 24,700 mph—some 7,700 mph faster than space vehicles reentering from low Earth orbit. The Avcoat is a reformulated version of the same material used for the Apollo program, but on Orion it is integrated into the heat shield in blocks rather than using a labor-intensive process of build-up with individually filled honeycomb cells.
“We had to learn how to do repairs because that material is prone to cracking in the honeycomb structure,” he adds. “So now we have made it out of blocks, similar to the [space shuttle] tile, and the shop at Kennedy machines [it] into the right shapes. There are 186 blocks mounted on top of the composite shell, and then there’s gap-filler material in between each one of the blocks. So it’s a different manufacturing technique and we’re very confident in it, but getting that test time will be a big deal.”
Lockheed has also completed the inner joining ring that will connect the Orion crew module for Artemis III with the European Space Agency (ESA)-made service module (ESM). “We’ve also made a number of deliveries to ESA for ESM 3,” Hawes says. “In fact, NASA provides several components to ESA through the Lockheed Martin contract. So far, we have delivered communications cards, harnesses and engines—purchased through a contract with Aerojet Rocketdyne.” In all, the ESM will house 33 separate thrusters, 24 of which are for attitude control.
“We are also already machining the panels for the Artemis IV vehicle,” Hawes says. Cone panels, which include openings for windows, for this vehicle are being made by Amro Fabricating in South El Monte, California, while the aluminum aft bulkhead, tunnel and barrel sections are being manufactured by Ingersoll in Rockford, Illinois.
“They are being machined now, and then the parts will be sent individually to Michoud to be welded,” Hawes says. “We also already have the ingots of aluminum and titanium for [the Orion for Artemis V]. So, from that standpoint, we really are starting to see the cadence of these major pieces being ordered in bulk and being able to support the flow that we still expect NASA to be on with this annual flight schedule. That’s what we’re driving to.”
For the longer-term future, Lockheed is also looking at other modifications to the vehicle as the science mission evolves, such as whether cubesat deployers could be mounted externally. “We have looked at some of those things, conceptually, that I think could end up happening, but we don’t have that as a specification from NASA,” Hawes says.
Ultimately, Lockheed expects that Orion could also be adapted for potential commercial applications. “NASA is looking at different service models,” Hawes adds. “Look at the Human Landing System, which was bid as a service mission. So, we do believe that there’s probably a path that you could talk about Orion as a service, or even as an alternate revenue stream of Orion missions sold to other customers. We talk to NASA about those options and see, as they’re thinking more about moving in those directions, how we could actually work to accommodate them.”
However, the focus for the immediate future is on proving the capabilities of the world’s first true deep-space-class spacecraft. “We’re going to fly, and it’s not going to be ground tests and analysis data anymore,” Hawes says. “It’s going to be flight testing, and it’s going to be data in the lunar environment, likely for weeks. You have either a 28-day mission or a 42-day mission, and 4-6 weeks in the lunar environment will give you all that data on how the vehicle operates. Then we shall see if we can actually expand that capability and fly different thermal profiles. Maybe we don’t have to be that conservative. I think that’s just going to be a huge deal for the program.”
Space Companies Feel Supply Chain Pinch
<i>Jen DiMascio, Michael Bruno, Irene Klotz</i>
COVID-related shortages impinge on launch schedules and satellite manufacturing
Space Companies Feel Supply Chain Pinch
Jen DiMascio, Michael Bruno, Irene Klotz
The launch of NASA’s Landsat 9 was delayed due to COVID-19-related shortages of liquid nitrogen. Credit: Northrop Grumman
Long-feared problems in the aerospace and defense supplier base due to the pandemic are suddenly surging, industry executives say, with visible setbacks emerging in space launches and satellite manufacturing. Under the surface, large defense companies are fretting about the long-term effects of COVID-19 that are beginning to show up in workforce and quality control issues.
- SpaceX and ULA launches face delays
- Satellite manufacturers and customers look for alternate supply sources
The space industry had been managing the COVID pandemic without major incident to this point. Months after the onset of COVID-19, SpaceX in May 2020 launched humans to space for the company’s first time. Early on, United Launch Alliance (ULA) scrutinized its supply chain and stocked up on as many components as possible. SpaceX and OneWeb have continued launching hundreds of satellites to low Earth orbit. And this July, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin sent space tourists beyond the atmosphere. But as time passes, issues in the space supply chain are causing disruptions.
SpaceX is experiencing limited supplies of liquid oxygen as demand from hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients rises. NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) delayed a ULA Atlas V launch from California because a liquid-nitrogen supplier was supporting COVID-19-driven hospital oxgyen needs in Florida.
Other commercial spacecraft manufacturers, the Pentagon and defense contractors are carefully monitoring the supply of microelectronics, as the industry encounters a scarcity of semiconductors for everything from automobiles to washing machines and stoves. During the pandemic, companies funded by venture capital in Silicon Valley, which made its name manufacturing semiconductors, have been scrambling to find chips in a market dominated by China, South Korea and Taiwan.
“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said during an Aug. 24 panel session at the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Shotwell did not elaborate on which launches were facing delays due to the liquid-oxygen limitations.
The launch on an Atlas V rocket of the Landsat 9 spacecraft, a joint project of NASA and the USGS, was delayed due to shortages of liquid nitrogen at Defense Logistics Agency supplier Airgas. The company converts liquid nitrogen to the gaseous nitrogen used during launch-vehicle testing and countdown operations, but it has been supporting Florida's COVID-19 needs.
In addition to a shortage of elements vital to launch, defense and space companies are having trouble obtaining microchips, chemicals and glass for solar panels and power supply systems.
SpaceX’s computer chip shortfall is delaying the company’s next design iteration of user terminals for its Starlink satellite broadband network, Shotwell said.
DARPA and other agencies buying fewer small satellites are struggling because of their lack of bargaining heft. “When you’re talking about components that are sold in hundreds of thousands, and a satellite manufacturer is buying a couple of dozen, they’re never going be the top dog,” says Joshua Duncan, business development lead at Blue Canyon Technologies, who stresses that the Raytheon Technologies subsidiary, which makes many of its own components, has not suffered to date. “It’s definitely something to keep an eye on,” he adds.
Derek Tournear, director of the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA), says supply chain difficulties with microelectronics are prompting some suppliers to modify their designs or find alternate vendors. Those pressures are not likely to delay planned launches because vendors either made design changes to mitigate the supply issues or were able to obtain the microelectronics they needed, he says. The agency, soliciting bids through October for nearly 150 satellites for its next tranche of low-Earth-orbit constellations, has made the supply chain a part of its key evaluation criteria.
Future SDA contracts may help small-satellite manufacturers make purchases in more economic quantities in the long run, says Paul Meyer, vice president of Raytheon Intelligence & Space, which is making Blackjack satellites for DARPA. “The opportunity is there for us to take our supply chain relationships and turn those into much, much stronger and better ones,” he says.
Risk in the supply chain has been a topic of discussion for the Space Acquisition Council since COVID-19 began, says Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, who leads U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command. Similarly, ULA conducted a detailed survey of its supply chain at the start of the pandemic and preordered as much as possible to try to head off potential shortages. Though supply chain issues have not been a problem yet, a shortfall of semiconductor chips is a possibility. For now, ULA has several months of supply available and hopes deliveries will resume before it runs out.
And Northrop Grumman Chief Financial Officer Dave Keffer says the company has been able to mitigate the effects of shortages by partnering with suppliers, sharing demand signals in advance and maintaining communication with semiconductor suppliers. “We’re careful about labor and semiconductor costs and other key elements of our supply chain as well,” he says.
Congress is weighing in with fiscal 2022 legislation that, if passed, would help fund research and development efforts to seed U.S. manufacturing of microelectronics.
Still, lower-tier suppliers across aerospace and defense are increasingly struggling, according to recent comments by industry executives at a different, closed-door event. Prime contractors, OEMs and upper-tier suppliers are starting to see Tier 3 and lower levels struggle to meet timelines and maintain quality control.
The executives pinned the increasing problems largely on the delayed effects of the pandemic and smaller suppliers wrestling with raw material prices and availability, as well as reduced workforces. They have been hit especially hard by departures of veteran employees, whose work has been taken up often by less experienced managers and workers, all pushed to perform. While companies and workers pulled together through most of 2020 as the pandemic took hold, and suppliers were still operating under preexisting orders and price arrangements, the supplier base is finally having to confront the effects of disruption.
“We have seen the biggest issues,” said a function leader at one of the largest OEMs. “I’ve never seen the highest number of notice of escapements and nonconforming material; it’s staggering,” he continued. “By no means do I think we’re though this. I’m more worried this is a longer-term trend.”
A top manager at a defense electronics prime echoed the expectation for ongoing reverberations. “We seem to be learning more and more every day about the breadth and depth of these challenges in our subtier vendors,” he said.
Another executive at a leading Tier 1 said scheduling has become chaotic. Lower-tier suppliers will quote 10-12 months for parts that used to reliably show up in 6-8 weeks, but then they will suddenly be delivered at the eighth week almost unannounced. “Predictability in the supply chain has been awful,” he said. “In some cases, you get these dire stories that it is going to be out a long time, and then it shows up on your porch like the next day. It’s really been both unpredictable and much longer than we’ve expected.”
At the August event, these executives and others agreed it could take 18-24 months for the supplier base just to recover from the initial impact of pandemic disruptions. Some said they were adding employees to their supply chain management offices to boost communication and coordination with lower-tier suppliers. But the assistance that the largest companies can provide to their suppliers is expected to be noticeably less than before the pandemic because OEMs, prime contractors and Tier 1s have cut their own workforces.
Building Smallsats: Inside Blue Canyon’s Manufacturing Facility
The spacecraft range from the size of a breadbox to a college-dorm refrigerator. Each bus comes with a hollow ring in the center and predrilled holes so that a propulsion system and payload can be mounted on it.
Building Smallsats: Inside Blue Canyon’s Manufacturing Facility
At a nondescript office park north of Denver, across from a Kaiser Permanente hospital complex, Blue Canyon Technologies LLC is building satellite buses and satellite components for NASA, the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence community, foreign private companies and others. Since 2016, the company has launched 30 satellites. The spacecraft range from the size of a breadbox to a college-dorm refrigerator. Each bus comes with a hollow ring in the center and predrilled holes so that a propulsion system and payload can be mounted on it. “We don’t want to constrain it,” says Josh Duncan, the lead for business development at Blue Canyon.