Skunk Works at 75

July 26, 2018

Skunk Works specializes in futuristic aircraft. This tailless delta-wing concept is one of many Lockheed Martin is evaluating for future air dominance work. Illustration: Lockheed Martin

Some 4,000 workers lined up for a slice of cake in the desert heat at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., on June 14, celebrating the 75th birthday of the founding of their organization, Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” advanced development unit. Their numbers are about 33 percent higher than just a few years ago. The secret projects business is booming.

Jeff A. Babione, newly minted Skunk Works president, acknowledged to reporters that “the parking lot is getting pretty full,” and the organization has a full plate of work to do. “There’s more work here than there’s been in a long time, maybe 10 or 15 years,” he said. Babione credited Rob Weiss—who officially turned over the mantle of “Top Skunk” that day, after five years in the job—for having rebuilt the business to about $1 billion a year; roughly its level of work during the early 1980s heyday of the F-117 stealth fighter program.

Skunk Works accounts for about two percent of Lockheed Martin’s $51 billion business, but the programs it has developed have sustained the company through many downturns in defense spending. Its innovations have often led to massive programs.

The multinational F-35 strike fighter—the Pentagon’s biggest program, building stealth jets for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and a dozen partner and customer countries—got its start at Skunk Works.

The list of Skunk Works projects reads like a history of military aeronautical innovation. The company reckons its anniversary to that day in June 1943 when then-Lockheed chief engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson hammered out a brief contract with the US Army to design and deliver a prototype operational jet fighter to counter Germany’s Me-262. The contract called for an aircraft to be provided in 180 days; Johnson delivered the XP-80 in 143 days.

Other “impossible” challenges followed, and Johnson developed a reputation for meeting them on time and on budget. Weiss, speaking with reporters before the anniversary celebration, noted that Johnson once returned most of the money he’d received for a project codenamed “Suntan” when it became apparent the technology was still out of reach.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson with a P-80 model. His team, which delivered the prototype 143 days after the go-ahead, became known as Skunk Works. Photo: AFA

That cemented “the reputation for integrity” of the organization, Weiss said.Noteworthy Skunk Works products also include the F-104 Starfighter; the U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane and the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, the latter of which set records for speed and altitude still unmatched more than 20 years after its retirement. The F-117 Nighthawk, a product of the 1970s and ‘80s, was the first operational stealth aircraft and paved the way for victory in two Persian Gulf Wars and one in the Balkans. The advent of American stealth is often credited as playing a big role in ending the Cold War by rendering Russia’s massive investment in air defense obsolete.

Johnson famously bounded programs by insisting they use proven technology as much as possible, limiting them to “one miracle” each. The F-117, for example, used landing gear, engines, flight controls, and targeting systems from other aircraft; the “one miracle” was stealth.

Babione said the organization is not limited to things that fly, however. Touting artificial intelligence, directed energy, and other cutting-edge technologies, he said Skunk Works will go “where … our customer needs us to be.” He said the outfit prides itself on studying the security situation and anticipating what customers want before they even know it. Lasers, for example, may well be simply another weapon equipping future aircraft, he said. Sticking to aeronautical projects exclusively “narrows your field” of potential work unnecessarily, Babione added.

That said, Lockheed Martin is taking on several hypersonics projects, touting its long research in the field. Hypersonics, Babione said, is “a national need, and we look at it as the core of our defense policies.” Skunk Works has been involved in Mach 5-plus projects for many years, having famously offered an “SR-72” hypersonic platform several years ago.

Skunk Works also designed the AGM-158 JASSM stealth missile and “we even built the first batches, which is not really known,” former Skunk Works executive vice president and general manager Frank J. Cappuccio said during a panel discussion with previous leaders of the unit. The JASSM subsequently has been manufactured at Lockheed’s Troy, Ala., facility.

Weiss also has publicly revealed an unsolicited proposal for a “TR-X,” high-flying unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft that would complement and eventually supplant the U-2 in Air Force service. Skunk Works is also starting to build a “quiet supersonic” X-59 research craft for NASA that could usher in a new era in high-speed commercial passenger travel.

Recent revelations include the MQ-25 proposal for the Navy, which would provide an unmanned tanker to extend the range of Navy carrier-based aircraft (shaped to suggest it could also be a stealthy target-spotter); a battlefield Marine Corps drone; an open missions systems (OMS) translator box called Einstein (the name inspired by the similarity of the acronym for Multimission Command and Control to Einstein’s E=MC2 equation), which will allow sensors to interface with any aircraft and put the sensor “take” on the military network for all affected platforms to make use of.

Yet another operational system hailing from Skunk Works is the RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy Air Force ISR drone which reportedly was instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden. Only two official photos have been released of the aircraft, though pictures have been snapped in forward operating areas by amateurs, and Iran has displayed an RQ-170 it claims it brought down through cyber attack in December 2011.

All those “known” or “white world” Skunk Works projects only amount to about 15 percent of what the company is working on, a spokeswoman said, leaving the vast majority in the “black” or secret world.

At the Palmdale birthday party, the company also showed off a small, all-white flying wing called X-44. A placard next to the aircraft noted that it pioneered the exploration of autonomous combat operations in the early 2000s, before the Boeing X-45 or Northrop Grumman X-47. Previously, the label “X-44” was believed to be assigned to a tailless F-22 concept that was never built.

A former head of Skunk Works told Air Force Magazine at the event, “Yeah, there are a lot of tricks in our bag that we use to misdirect attention.”

The X-44 had recently made a static appearance at a California air show, but the company had promised a revelation at the anniversary event. The spokeswoman reported that government security agencies failed to approve the disclosure in time for the celebration. Instead, a Lockheed World War II P-38 and ‘30s-era Lockheed Vega made an appearance, along with a stealthy, generic mockup of a flying wing.

Babione acknowledged that the unit’s success is making it tough to get all the engineers, software code writers, and other specialists the unit needs to execute its projects. Because it is pursuing projects beyond aerodynamics, he finds himself competing with the likes of Google, SpaceX, Amazon, Apple, and other organizations not usually, or only recently, involved in aerospace.

For that reason and others, Babione said Skunk Works will be “collaborating” with Silicon Valley entities and other organizations who perhaps know more about networking and artificial intelligence to supplement what Wiess said is Skunk Works’ unrivaled “domain expertise” in defense. That collaboration will be matured in the next few years, he added. Again, the outfit doesn’t want to recreate something already available, he said.

In a panel discussion with four former Skunk Works chiefs, Cappuccio, who led the organization from 2001 to 2011, noted that he was the last engineer hired by Kelly Johnson personally. He tried to cultivate an atmosphere of “entrepeneuring,” in which engineers would come forward with new ideas and try to find ways those ideas could be used in other products; not necessarily those of the company. Key to this was not punishing people who took risks and failed.

“It has to be a creative environment for young people,” Cappuccio said. His people knew—and he reminded them with his actions—that “if they took risks, and it didn’t work, they would not be shot.” He also said it was imperative to “keep magic alive in a culture” that didn’t like magic.”

Cappuccio recalled that his predecessor, Ben R. Rich, who spearheaded the F-117 program and persuaded the Air Force to help keep Skunk Works alive with a healthy contract to “upgrade”—really, remanufacture—the U-2, was at first dumbstruck when approached with an idea to build a stealth ship.

To the employee who brought the idea to him, “Ben said, ‘we’ve never done a ship, but if you think you can do it, I’ll give you a staff,’?” Capuccio recalled. “Our engineers knew nothing about ships. But we learned.” The project produced the hyper-secret Sea Shadow stealth ship, built inside the Hughes’ Mining Barge. The lessons it taught the Navy about being low-observable at sea are now evident in the slab-sided Zumwalt class destroyers and other vessels.

Alton D. Romig, head Skunk from 2011 to 2013, said Johnson “set the stage by pulling together people who thought they could do the impossible.” The Skunk Works culture, he said, is “easy to lose” without constant vigilance by its chief, who must ward off tinkerers from upper management and outsiders who want to involve themselves unnecessarily.

That culture was largely encapsulated in what has come to be known as “Kelly’s 14 Rules,” which are posted inside the Skunk Works facility. The rules spell out that program managers must have total authority over their programs; a short reporting chain, preferably to the head of the company; and minimum oversight, both from within Lockheed and by outsiders who really have no value to add.

The military should provide its own, very small and empowered program staff, and the number of people working on the project should be limited “in an almost vicious manner,” Johnson wrote.

Kelly also insisted on minimal reports; cost updates on a monthly basis; preference for a commercial, rather than government bidding process from vendors, and early and frequent test flights. Success, he said, would stem from reliable, locked-in funding so the company didn’t have to “constantly keep running to the bank” and get loans.

He insisted on an atmosphere of trust between the government and the contractor, and paying people based on their contributions, not based on how many people they supervised.

Sherman N. Mullin, top Skunk from 1990 to 1994, said Johnson’s rules instilled “a sense of accountability,” a determination to “only invest what you have to,” and “stay within your budget.”

Johnson’s 15th rule, Cappuccio quipped, was “never work with the Navy.”Romig warned Babione to pay attention to the rule about vendors. “It’s easy to have too much trust in someone else’s supply chain,” he said.

The X-44 UAV, recently declassified, demonstrated low-observable, autonomous drone operations in the early 2000s. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Jack S. Gordon, head Skunk from 1994 to 1999, said a critical rule is, “we should be allowed to test what we we’re developing,” to make sure it works.

“That’s where you find out what the real problems are,” he said. He noted that both “Have Blue” demonstrators—the proof-of-concept aircraft that led to the F-117—crashed. In today’s risk-averse culture, the program might have ended there, but patient Air Force and corporate leaders saw the value in the flight test data and pressed on.

He also said flight testing “took the ‘dither’ out of the system.” Fixes were often decided off the cuff, and even if they were wrong, projects kept moving forward until successful, he noted.

The X-33 Space Shuttle successor program, Gordon said, was one of the great “almost” successes in Skunk Works history. The company wanted to use fuel tanks of certain materials, but NASA insisted otherwise. Against the company’s better judgment, Skunk Works acceded. The same technology was to have equipped the National Aerospace Plane. One day, the tanks were fueled and defueled six times, and hours later, failed. “I’m convinced that’s what killed the X-33,” he said. “Something we could have fixed for … $12 million,” after NASA “spent $1 billion on it.”

The former leaders said they rarely had trouble with recruiting. “The SR-71 had a lot to with that,” Cappuccio reported. “After people saw that, they wanted to be part of us.”

He said there were “downsides” to the hyper-security of the organization and its projects.

“Some … pilots gave their lives to their country” testing Skunk Works designs, he said, and it was a monumental task getting permission to tell their families what had happened. Sometimes, permission never came, or came years later, and “that wasn’t right.”

There were humorous moments related to security, though, Cappuccio said. Emphasizing his strong New York-area accent, he related how, in early days, he was paid in cash, because Skunk Works was so secret there couldn’t even be an employee paper trail. After several weeks of coming home with a bag of cash as his salary, he said his wife asked him, “?‘Frank, you didn’t go into the ‘family business,’ did you?’?”

Babione said when he gets together with other high-tech companies—and collectively, when they talk to Congress about how to speed up the sluggish government development process—“they all recommend the same thing, right? Removing the bureaucracy and allowing the contractor more control over the design. So the message is there, and the Trump administration has set an expectation that that’s the way they’re going to behave.” What industry hasn’t seen yet, he said, is whether that will be “the way we’re going to do this.” But, “industry is excited and ready to respond.”

Defense leaders from the Obama administration (notably former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work) and the Trump administration (such as Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper) have said government needs to emulate the Skunk Works model—citing the company by name—to obtain the speed of technological innovation the new world situation demands.

The SR-71 (top) and U-2 are two of the once-secret projects carried out by Skunk Works. Photo: Lockheed Martin


The organization is mindful of budget pressures looming, that Fiscal Year 2020 may not be as generous as the last two years, and “we look at where the customer is likely to get the funding, and we adapt … our pursuits around that to some extent,” Babione said. “What we know is, if we have the technology the customer wants, we can build a program out of it.” Funding will likely be secure as long as the company delivers “on time with the capability they [the customers] need. … If you don’t do that, then you risk those budgets being taken away.”

Weiss also said that if the administration is serious about the new National Defense Strategy, “then the nation has to resource to it. I think that will be the big question, on the macro level. A couple of years of strong DOD budgets will not enable the nation to execute that … strategy. It’s essential that the nation commit itself to resource that vision.”

Otherwise, Babione chimed in, it’s a strategy of “hope.”

Babione transitioned the F-22 from production to sustainment and took the F-35 from flight test to the start of big production numbers. Asked if that’s why Babione was picked to be the new head Skunk—because there are programs about to make the leap from prototyping to operational capability—Weiss said the choice reflects all of Babione’s work history.

“Not only is Jeff going to transition these programs from initial prototyping and conceptual design to production, but he’s going to keep the innovative side of things going as well,” Weiss said.

He, too, advised Babione to “protect the culture” of Skunk Works, warning him that there will always “be the desire to give [the customer] more than maybe [he] needs.” He urged Babione to “take the goodness” offered by other companies and within Lockheed and “be quick, be affordable.”

Although there are other intensive innovation shops that have adopted the Skunk Works approach and even added the suffix “-works” to their name, “this is the only Skunk Works,” Weiss said.