Defense Business Brief: More Top Gun Thoughts; B-21 First Flight Delayed; NGO awards big picture deals and more.

Apologies in advance: I watched Top Gun: Maverick this week and it’s dominated pretty much every personal and professional discussion I’ve had since. It’s rare that pop culture intersects with my coverage of military spending and guns, but here we are.

Don’t worry, there are no major spoilers below, just the plot, so please read on.

I’m not a big movie guy – I haven’t been to a cinema since the summer of 2019. This isn’t really a pandemic thing, I probably only go to the theater to see a movie or two a year if at all. But that movie has been on my to-do list since 2012, when we first learned that Tom Cruise would be reprising his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in a sequel to the 1986 classic Top Gun.

It’s clear that a lot has changed since an executive at a 2012 luncheon boasted that Cruise would be a Lockheed Martin F-35 test pilot (thanks, Wayback Machine, for rescuing this Steve Trimble gem!). We have known for some time that this was not the case. As I mentioned here, the film devotes most of its facetime to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, but also includes an E-2D command and control aircraft, a fictional hypersonic jet manufactured by Skunk Works called the Darkstar, and just one short Cameo appearance of the F-35 stealth fighter.

The enemy in the film is never named, just like in military exercises full of fake, made-up countries. I remember talking to the now Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, about the wrong opponents at an exercise in the Mojave Desert in the early hours of the morning. I remember he laughed and said the fake names really represent China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. At the time, the Pentagon hesitated to say who it was fighting.

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In Top Gun: Maverick, the enemy is on the verge of uranium enrichment at a nuclear site guarded by missiles and advanced surface-to-air missiles. And they have fifth generation fighter jets. This basically combines the four countries mentioned above. Russia and China have fifth-generation fighter jets but already have nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea both have nuclear programs but no fifth-generation fighter jets.

Why does all this matter? The film manages to reconcile past and present while looking to the future. There is argument over whether drones or manned jets will fill the skies. Whether hypersonic planes are ready for prime time or not. And whether fourth-gen (or third-gen!) jets can compete with fifth-gen.

Do yourself a favor this long Memorial Day weekend and read this vulture piece about the movie. Warning, it has some spoilers, but it’s well done.

The first flight of the B-21 bomber has been delayed until next year; However, the public could see the aircraft yet to be seen this year. Aviation Week reported first the slip-in schedule. This week, B-21 maker Northrop Grumman said the first stealth bomber had completed a key ground test. “In early May, Northrop Grumman successfully completed the first – and most critical – load calibration test of the first B-21 aircraft,” the company said. “The recent test is one of three key conditions the aircraft will undergo at this stage of ground testing as it approaches maiden flight.”

The National Reconnaissance Office awarded this week BlackSky, Maxar and Planet are the “biggest” commercial image contacts of all time, “worth billions of dollars over the next decade.” The Maxar contract is valued at $3.2 billion and BlackSky’s at $1 billion over the decade space news. The terms of the Planet deal were not disclosed. “[T]These contracts mark a historic expansion in NGO acquisitions of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity than ever before,” the agency said.

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The US State Department has released three big gun deals this week that together could be worth more than $3.1 billion. A $2.6 billion deal for Egypt to buy up to 23 Boeing-made CH-47F Chinook helicopters makes up the lion’s share of the deals. The state also approved a $385 million deal for Australia to purchase 20 M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and 30 M30A2 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Finally, the state approved a $117 million deal for the Netherlands to purchase 115 AIM-9X Block II missiles.

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