Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary and a Full Parking Lot

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works celebrated it's 75th anniversary on Thursday. Lockheed Martin graphic.

PALMDALE, CALIF.—Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” advanced development division celebrated its 75th anniversary today with a company party for employees. There are almost 4,000 of them in Palmdale, up from 2,700 not long ago. Business is booming.

“The parking lot is getting pretty full,” said Jeff Babione, who took over as head of Skunk Works today from Rob Weiss, who has held the job since 2013 and will retire from the company by the end of this year. “It’s almost a bad time” to take over the position, Babione said, since the secret projects division is doing so well and he joked that it will be tough to improve its bottom line. Skunk Works is doing about $1 billion a year in business, comparable to what it earned at the height of the F-117 project. It’s part of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, which is a $20 billion enterprise, in turn part of the $51 billion Lockheed Martin defense behemoth. Babione said it’s been getting tougher to get enough engineers to do all the work Skunk Works has won in the last few years, and because artificial intelligence and autonomy are big new aspects of defense programs, he’s competing with the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Google, as well as Boeing, Northrop Grumman (next door), and SpaceX for talent.

The party was supposed to feature the unveiling of a classified project, but the government failed to give approval for the disclosure in time. Company officials said they would reveal the object in the near future. On display, however, was the “X-44,” a proof-of-concept autonomous stealth unmanned aerial vehicle, which Lockheed touted as having flown in the early 2000s, before Boeing’s X-45 or Northrop Grumman’s X-47. The small white flying wing made an unannounced static appearance at an airshow recently, and so was not making its public premiere. Previous to its appearance, the designation “X-44” was widely believed to have been a tailless F-22 project that was canceled.

Weiss said that Skunk Works is diversifying into directed energy and other technologies not necessarily associated with aeronautics, and Babione said there’s no plan to hold aeronautics at a certain percentage of the overall business. “We’re looking at, where does our customer need us to be,” he said. “What are their toughest problems? Maybe problems they don’t even know they have.” Skunk Works will aim to provide those answers before the questions are asked, he said. Hewing to a certain percentage of platform work “narrows your field” unnecessarily, he added.

Hypersonics he singled out as “a national need, and we look at it as the core of our defense policies.” Artificial intelligence and machine learning he said will be applicable across all domains, and lasers may be “just another weapon” that goes on future platforms. The organization’s “moonshot” is a miniature fusion reactor, which could lead to aircraft with unlimited range and persistence.

Major announced efforts at Skunk Works include the Navy’s MQ-25 autonomous unmanned tanker; the Air Force and Navy Next-Generation Air Dominance programs; next-generation surveillance drones, including a stealthy successor to the MQ-9 Reaper (although Weiss noted that the Air Force has not yet stated requirements for such a system); the Marine Corps battlefield UAS called “Ares;” futuristic cargo-carrying aircraft ranging from flying wing aircraft to airships; Multi-Domain Command and Control systems, and hypersonics. However, all that only adds up to about 15 percent of the unit’s business, a company spokeswoman said. The other 85 percent is “black,” or secret.

Babione said there will be greater collaboration with commercially oriented entities like Google on his watch, because they have great “horsepower” to apply to AI and machine learning. However, they don’t understand the security situation or the threat, and so there’s mutual benefit to partnerships with such companies, Weiss said. “You can’t overstate the domain expertise” Skunk Works possesses, he said. How that collaboration will work is “something that will be matured in the next few years,” he added.

Weiss also said he doesn’t think the time of big production runs of airborne systems is over, even though some have argued that technology demands short runs of systems quickly supplanted by new ones. The F-35, for example, Weiss said will be upgraded and improved for decades to come, and Babione noted that “there’s a quality to quantity.” Weiss has argued for F-35 production in large numbers because the military’s force structure needs to be recapitalized with modern gear, and the F-35 will be able to evolve along with the threat because of its open mission systems architecture.

The company showed off what it calls its “Einstein box,” because of its acronym, Multi-domain Command and Control, or MC2. The unit can instantly perform tasks such as automatic target recognition and post that information to a friendly defense network, aiming the information at platforms that can attack the targets and battle commanders who need to know about them. The system can work with aircraft without requiring any integration with their existing flight programs or other processors. It’s a “plug and play” unit, company technicians said, which fits the new paradigm of networking to enhance capability.

Skunkworks reckons its anniversary to the June day in 1943 that Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then chief of engineering for Lockheed, signed a contract with the Army Air Corps to develop, within 180 days, a jet fighter. Johnson hand-picked a small team to attack the problem and delivered the XP-80 in only 143 days. Asked to tackle other projects, Johnson held his team together and continued to rapidly deliver cutting-edge aircraft in record time. The organization prides itself on the culture Johnson created to build expert teams who took on tough challenges with the proviso that government oversight was minimal and that there was trust between the company and its customers. On a project codenamed “Suntan,” Johnson returned 65 percent of the money paid by the government because it became clear the requested technology was still out of reach. That kind of action cemented the unit’s “reputation for integrity,” Weiss told reporters.

The projects undertaken by Skunk Works were done “quickly, affordably, and met urgent national needs,” he asserted. Johnson’s mantra was that the company would only promise “one miracle per program” and rely wherever possible on existing technology and proven systems to save time, complexity, and money.

Weiss offered advice to Babione, saying “you have to protect this culture,” because there will frequently be the urge—“well intentioned”—to give the customer more than he really needs. Take the “goodness” offered by partners and the larger corporate entity, but “preserve the ability to be quick, be affordable.” He said this was the top lesson he learned “from my time here at the Skunk Works.”

He also noted that many companies and the government have openly said they are imitating the Skunk Works culture—many adding the suffix “-works,” “werx,” and other variations to organization names—but he wonders how they can adopt such a mode when their own culture is “not particularly quick.”

Frank Cappuccio, head of the organization from 2001 to 2011, said Johnson was successful because he could “cherry pick” the best engineers from Lockheed, and never really went back to his job as chief of engineering. “He was having too much fun,” Cappuccio said.