Inside Skunk Works, Lockheed’s super-secret weapons facility

An empty lot is located at the corner Sierra Highway and Avenue N. It has a flagpole at its center. The spotter and spy from around the globe gather to get a good view of the latest Lockheed Martins aircraft, which flies above Skunk Works. They are the only ones who can see them, and there is no view of the runway nor the planes on the tarmac.
Lockheed allowed a small group of journalists to visit its massive facility for a few hours last month. This was the first time that the veil has been lifted behind the magic workshop's secretive operations in eight years. Skunk Works made the U-2 spy aircraft, which can still collect images at 70,000 feet. The SR-71 Blackbird was a Mach-3 plane capable of flying at Mach 3 speeds. The F-117 Nighthawk was the first stealth fighter.

This is the equivalent to a Golden Ticket for Willy Wonkas factory. But think supersonic drones rather than Everlasting Gobstoppers.

Officially, the purpose of the visit was to cut the ribbon for a new stateof-the-art factory located on the campus' 539-acre grounds. Unofficially, Lockheed Martin is trying to get more support for Pentagon business in a world where defense budgets are flat.

Byron Callan is Capital Alpha Partners' managing director. He said Lockheed has many reasons to showcase its facilities. Skunk Works, for example, is making big investments in digital engineering and wants to outdo Northrop Grumman and Boeing in their bid for a part in Next Generation Air Dominance, the Air Force's next fighter plane program.

He said that many of these things are done in classified programs. This is probably just a way for us to say, Hey we're competitive. We've invested in some of these areas.

Artist rendering of the next-generation drone. It shows an unmanned aircraft collaborating with an F-35. Lockheed Martin

Skunks' Den

Skunk Works is a legend. It was established in 1943 by the Army's Air Tactical Service Command, who asked Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for the design and manufacturing of the nation's first fighter jet during World War II.

Lockheed chose Clarence Kelly Johnson as the XP-80 program's leader, a young engineer. One problem was that the company didn't have enough space at its Burbank facility for the project.

Kellys team rented an inflatable circus tent and delivered the fighter in 143 days. Legend has it that the tent smelled pungent because it was located near a Burbank plastics factory. Skunk Works was created.

It's a lot more high-tech and high-top than it was 80 years ago. Skunk Works just finished a 215,000-square foot advanced manufacturing facility, which can produce aircraft for the United States and its allies in future conflicts.

Skunk Works' footprint in the desert is limited to this new facility. Skunk Works, which is actually a collection 58 buildings, covers 2.4 million square feet and sits on a flat square of land. It is surrounded by sun-bleached highways.

Arriving at the visitors centre, guests are taken by van sometimes through underground tunnels. Guests are always closely monitored throughout campus to ensure they don't see too much. Around 85 percent of the work performed here is classified.

The Skunks Den is headquarters' only unclassified area. This modern conference room looks just like any other. The space includes a large conference table as well as additional seating. This is stuffed with 60 models of toaster-size on display stands that line the walls, which are encased by glass.

The glass case features a simple briefcase. Johnson used it to visit CIA headquarters to show an early prototype of the A-12, a precursor of the SR-71.

Despite all its achievements, Lockheed has faced criticism and problems in recent years. Lawmakers continue to raise concerns about the performance and costs of the tri-service F-35 aircraft, which was built in Skunk Works and became the most expensive Pentagon program.

Even with the substantial increase in revenue from U.S. government contract, Lockheed's stock performance is not on the same level since March 2020, when the pandemic began.

Kenneth Possenriede, a long-serving company man and acting Chief Financial Officer, abruptly retired in August. His announcement coincided closely with Lockheed Martins $225 million loss on a classified Aeronautics program.

Callan suggested in a note addressed to investors that even though the loss was small, Possenriedes' resignation could have been triggered if his team failed to alert him to the project's problems.

Lockheed Martin stated that the $225 million loss due to poor performance was discovered when Lockheed Martin conducted a deep dive into the program, and then reported the results back to the board.

Based on current negotiations with our customer and the completion of the review, it was concluded that the total cost of the current phase of this program is expected to exceed the contract price. According to Lockheeds quarterly filings,

The classified nature of the undisclosed programme suggests that the project may have ties to Skunk Works. However, Skunk Works executives declined to comment on the loss during the visit.

Skunk Works has submitted a rendering of an artist rendering of the next-generation unmanned aircraft Skunk Works. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The factory of the future

In the Skunks' Den, Jeff Babione (Vice President and General Manager of Skunk Works) outlines what he calls "the factory of the future".

Skunk Works' first factory since 1980s. Babione stated that the building was not designed to build a particular aircraft. It has no fixed machinery or tooling which allows it to be reconfigured to accommodate new projects.

This Skunk Works facility is also the first to offer secure wireless communications. Employees can transmit data digitally. Everything was previously done on paper. Lockheed Martin will spend more than $2 billion in digital transformation over the next five-years.

Local dignitaries joined Lockheed Martin executives to cut the ribbon. Participants had to wear masks due to the Delta variant's rise, and they still had to be physically distant.

Before entering the factory, guests entered a lobby. Dua Lipas Levitating played through the sound system. On the lobby's left wall was a plaque in memory of Michele Evans who was former Head of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Evans died from cancer on January 1. As guests walk through the factory, the new car smell persists as they look at the drawings that show how the space was designed for a fluid future.

The new trend in weapon development is digital engineering. Babione stated that Skunk Works will now be able to build aircraft at a very low cost by owning the project from birth through adulthood.

As China's growing competition for American markets increases, the U.S. is building a new factory. Lockheed, like many other companies, must rethink its business model to stay relevant as Beijing continues developing advanced capabilities such as hypersonic weapons or fifth-generation aircraft to support its position as a regional leader.

Guest can walk through an underground tunnel to reach one of the many buildings on campus. Upon reaching another facility, they will be taken to another building. Here is NASA's X-59 supersonic flying demonstrator. It is one of few unclassified programs at Skunk Works.

It would normally be hidden under a crowd of workers but today the fuselage shell is protected behind a chain link fence. The factory floor is surrounded by a steel ceiling-high wall that blocks out any other top-secret aircraft.

Atherton Carty (Vice President of Strategy and Business Development) notes that the X-59 supersonic transport jet is designed to reduce noise from sonic booms above land. Carty stated that it will sound like a car's door closing. Due to noise regulations, Concorde was not allowed to travel at supersonic speeds over the ocean. This ultimately hampered its viability as a consumer travel product.

Skunk Works will repurpose pieces from previous projects to construct the 100-foot-long, 30-foot-wide X-59. Atherton stated that the program will use the T-38 canopy and F-16 landing gear as well as the F/A-18 engine to lower costs. NASA awarded Lockheed Martin the $247.5 million contract for 2018.

Skunk Works announced Speed Racer, a subproject in September 2020. A program will be certified using digital engineering for flight testing and certification, this is the first time that it has been done. It appears that the flight vehicle configuration is a winged, air-launched cruise missile system or unmanned aircraft system.

Skunk Works is making large bets on hypersonic weapon development, including the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, which failed a flight test in July. It is also working on the Next Generation Air Dominance program, which will replace F/A-18s or F-22s.

Although the visit made it clear that there won't be any public updates about these programs anytime soon, the glimpse behind the curtain suggests what might be possible.

Babione stated that we have come a long way since the World War II circus tent. This may be your last visit to this facility for many.

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