Boeing uses autonomy as a turning point for the future defense business

Boeing’s defense business has stabilized following a series of quarterly losses that have put the company on concern, senior executives said on a Jan. 25 earnings call.

Now, officials say they are focused on advancing new technology within Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security division, known as BADS.

At the top of the mind: Fully autonomous systems and platforms that use a combination of human and unmanned.

Boeing CEO David L. Calhoun said of the future of military aircraft: “I believe that autonomy and interoperability will be one of the real drivers of aircraft development.”

Both the Air Force and Navy look to those technologies as key requirements for future programs, Calhoun said.

The Air Force has the concept of cooperative combat aircraft, or CCAs, a set of proposed semi-autonomous systems that use artificial intelligence to assist future human pilots.

“We’ve already invested and are making real progress with members of both combat forces,” Calhoun said of the future Air Force and Navy autonomous programs.

“The development that we’ve been waiting for all these years, I feel really good,” Calhoun added.

Boeing is working on unclassified unmanned systems such as the MQ-28 Ghost Bat, artificial intelligence and autonomy to support manned aircraft, and the large Orca underwater vehicle.

But Boeing’s top boss cited “really new” secret programs the company is working on.

Over the past two quarters, Boeing has posted multibillion-dollar losses on its defense business, stemming from delays in programs for the KC-46 Pegasus tanker and the new Air Force One, also known as the VC-25B. In the year In November, Boeing revamped its BDS executive team and restructured the business to strengthen the number of divisions. In the year In the fourth quarter of 2022, the defense business managed to tread water.

“A key focus for the BDS leadership team was improving executions to improve performance and stability both in the plant and on the supply base,” said Brian West, Boeing’s chief financial officer.

The KC-46, in particular, has been a headache for Boeing, with problems ranging from faulty cargo latches to a faulty boom actuator and remote vision system requiring an expensive redesign. Despite all that, Boeing officials say they think their refueling business is in good shape as the company works on autonomous refueling capabilities. In December, officials announced that a KC-46 had been successfully refueled by another KC-46 autonomously, with one man on board for safety reasons.

“These are things we’re fully invested in,” Calhoun said.

The competitor, the Airbus A330 MRTT, demonstrated that the tanker can perform automatic refueling or automatic air-to-air refueling.

Airbus and Lockheed Martin have teamed up to sell a version of that tanker to the Air Force, called the LMXT, for use in a possible KC-Y “bridge tanker” program among current Air Force tankers—which would survive the KC-46. Decades – and the future of next-generation talent. Lockheed Martin bills the LMXT’s autonomous refueling as one of its key features.

Although Boeing officials see the technology as a long-term asset, the Air Force currently does not have a program that calls for autonomous refueling.

While Boeing is still feeling the brunt of the fixed-price contract that drove up costs, Calhoun said he’s optimistic about the company’s future defense programs.

“Sorry [about] Some of the contracting strategies we used,” Calhoun said. But we are where we are.

“We have work to do, but we feel really good about our progress,” Calhoun added.

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