Le Bourget Airport will become the aviation industry’s catwalk beginning Monday, with more than 150 jets, choppers and drones expected to zoom over hundreds of thousands of fans and trade representatives at a week-long celebration — the International Paris Air Show.
Launched in 1909 and held every two years, the 52nd Salon International de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace is expected to shatter its record 2015 draw — 2,303 exhibitor companies from 48 countries.
And if the team from San Diego-based Kratos Defense & Security Solutions in Booth 3-A118 has its way, the world will get a hint of what promises to become the most lethal unmanned aerial vehicles ever designed — the XQ-222 Valkyrie and UTAP-22 Mako, relatively cheap drones that could double as a fighter pilot’s expendable wingmen in future wars.
“We’ve evolved the maturity of the design to the point where we feel comfortable rolling pieces of it out,” said Steve Fendley, president of the unmanned systems division at Kratos.
The company won’t fly prototypes of the two drones over Paris; the Valkyrie mock-up won’t be built at the company’s Sacramento facilities until early 2018, while the Mako remains a highly classified project.
But versions of the real things have been zooming across naval test ranges in Kern and Ventura counties for months.
To Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, showcasing the Kratos drones at Paris is another indication that San Diego’s burgeoning UAV industry, paced by Poway-based General Atomics’ groundbreaking MQ-1 Predator, is an international force.
People at risk
“A lot of the expense of building aircraft comes from life support — keeping the pilot alive. If you take that out, you save a lot of money and you don’t put people at risk,” said Hunter, a former Marine officer who serves on the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
General Atomics also will attend the Paris Air Show, but the Predator is different from the Kratos drones. It cruises at under 100 miles per hour for up to an entire day as high as 25,000 feet above the ground, perfect for surveillance and precise attacks.
The highly maneuverable Kratos UAVs are being built to fly just under the speed of sound — nearly 700 miles per hour for the Mako and about 50 mph slower for the Valkyrie — and mimic the capabilities of jets like the Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier II.
With a length of 30 feet, the Valkyrie boasts a big bomb bay, the ability to climb twice as high in the sky as the Predator and a fuel range of nearly 3,500 miles. That’s about the distance between New York City and London. It’s also twice the range of the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy and lethal F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, but at a fraction of the sticker price.
Kratos created the Mako “for a few million” dollars from existing technology, Fendley said. The Valkyrie is a $41 million project, with $7 million of that funding coming from the Air Force and the rest from private investors.
Based on the workhorse line of target drones already built by Kratos for the armed forces, the Valkyrie and the Mako will retail between $2 million to $3 million each. They’re cheap enough to be used in swarms orchestrated by, say, the pilot of an $85 million Joint Strike Fighter — a school of Makos, a flight of Valkyries.
Ruggedness and reusability
“Think about a manned aircraft if it came down under a parachute onto its nose and flopped down on the ground and we said we were going to fly it again this afternoon. It would be impossible. It would never happen. But these have been designed with that level of ruggedness and reusability,” Fendley said.
Hunter said the role Congress plays in future UAV development isn’t so much to sluice taxpayer money to companies like Kratos, but to enable these comparatively smaller businesses to get a fair shake from the Department of Defense when they challenge mammoth defense corporations for contracts.
“We have to make sure that DoD gives them a shot and allows them to compete instead of just going to the big guy first,” Hunter said. “Or they’ll tell Kratos that they have to partner with a Boeing if you want to do this. That’s not right.”
In even-numbered years, aviation firms and fans flock to the ILA Berlin Air Show in Germany and the Farnborough International Airshow in southern Britain. The Paris show is the only major global aerospace event the rest of the time.
Southern California companies plan to pack a powerful punch in Paris, accounting for 41 businesses out the 387 American companies currently on the schedule to exhibit their products and services at Le Bourget.
Headquartered between Santa Barbara and San Diego, the delegation includes local companies like Cubic Corp. — maker of advanced air-combat training systems — and the Hi Tech Honeycomb factory located near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar that manufacturers intricate seals for gas turbine engines.
Cubic’s defense programs conduct business in 38 countries, so Paris serves as a biannual reunion of clients, suppliers and military forces worldwide.
“I’ve gone from being a customer to being a provider,” said Cubic’s president, David “Buf” Buss, a former Navy “Air Boss” who set the service’s aviation policies and training requirements.
A career aviator, Buss flew an A-6 Intruder long-range attack jet at Farnborough two decades ago and will lead Cubic’s team at Booth 3-B158 this coming week.
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