Out of the fish bowl

Jeff A. Babione

Positions: Since June 2018, general manager, Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs, also known as Skunk Works. 2016-18, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager in charge of the F-35 program; 2013-15, vice president and deputy general manager for F-35; 2012-13, vice president and general manager for the F-15/F-22 Integrated Fighter Group; 2010-12, vice president in charge of the F-22 program; 2006-10, chief engineer for the F-22.
Notable: The shift to Skunk Works puts Babione at the helm of a research and development culture, after 25 years spent largely in development and production of fighter aircraft. A structural engineer by training, Babione joined Lockheed Martin in 1993. As the F-35 deputy, Babione led the implementation of the “Redesign for Growth” strategy in which manufacturing processes were restructured to accommodate expanded production. As general manager, he shepherded the F-35 program to completion of system design and development testing and to declarations of initial operational capability by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Israeli Air Force.
Education: Master of Business Administration from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, 2008; Master of Science in aerospace engineering, University of Washington, 1991; Bachelor of Science in aerospace and ocean engineering, Virginia Tech.

When he was managing Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, Jeff Babione liked to say that it was like working in a fish bowl. Congress and reporters were digging into the over-budget and delayed program, and one of Babione’s jobs was to vigorously make the case that the program was getting on track. Babione now finds himself in the opposite of a fish bowl, having moved over in June to head the company’s secretive Advanced Development Programs business in California, better known as Skunk Works. Work is underway there on the SR-72 spy plane, hypersonic weapons, a NASA X-plane and other technologies that only those with the right clearances know about. I spoke to Babione at the AIAA Aviation Forum in June about perceptions of the F-35 program and whether the fabled Skunk Works culture can survive with so many billions of new dollars flowing into the business unit.


Misperceptions about the F-35

I would say it this way: It has had a strong headwind from a political standpoint. I don’t disagree that the [F-35 program] should get a lot of focus. But with this 24-hour news cycle, the ability for anyone to write an article about anything, we don’t often get the context. One of the [audience members at AIAA’s Aviation Forum raised a news account saying] that [the F-35] is not as good as the F-16. That’s a sound bite that came out about five years ago, but it was reported again just about a year ago. The test was designed to find the limits of [the F-35]. Go talk to the guys that fly the F-35 now. They would never hop in an F-16. It’s a target in their world. They’re like, “This airplane is so much better,” because it’s not about any one bit, it’s the overall weapon system, the aircraft.

Stealth as a necessity for fifth generation fighter aircraft

If you’re in Afghanistan, there are no surface-to-air threats. But if you’re [facing a better-equipped adversary] and the troops are in contact, there won’t be any airplanes overhead that aren’t stealth airplanes [like the F-35] because they’ll be shot out of the sky by the surface-to-air missiles. You quickly get to a place where there aren’t any fourth gens. None. So, if you’re in an uncontested environment, sure, an A-10 can go in there. But if you’re in a contested environment, the A-10 wouldn’t get within hundreds of miles of there without being destroyed.

More quality, less cost

That happens because we’ve continued to change the way we build the airplane, improve the quality of the airplane. During the manufacturing process, we occasionally don’t perform a step correctly, and we have to do what’s called rework. And that takes time that normally would go in to having the airplane flow through the line faster. We’re looking at every time we don’t do it quite right and finding a way to prevent it from happening again. What I’m referencing is in-process quality. How many times did I have to redo something or change, correct something in the build? By the end of the day, the airplane meets all requirements because the U.S. government has the accountability to sign off on the airplanes.

Achieving an $80 million F-35

Reducing the in-process errors; challenging the supply chain to invent new technologies that actually give you the same or better capability for a lower cost — that’s how we’re going to get to an $80 million airplane [from $94.3 million for an A model F-35]. I’m incredibly confident. I’ve seen what we need to do to get there. It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as it was to develop the airplane. There are levers, and [production] numbers is the most important. Why is it more cost-effective to buy at Costco? You’re getting a discount because of the quantities of the things that you’re buying. About 80 percent of that cost reduction is getting up to a number of airplanes to reduce the cost.

Staying “Skunk-like”

We are working in an acquisition system that’s completely different than when [Skunk Works founder Clarence “Kelly” Johnson] started. And so it becomes more difficult to remain Skunk-like. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing it. That’s why I think our customer continues to come to the Skunk Works. We can do things quickly and quietly faster than others and more affordably. We do need to be cautious not to get too big, because that culture is unscalable to a lot of things. You see us take things to a certain point like an X-plane, and then we give it to the broader company to go execute, because you don’t want to compromise what we have in these small teams and that’s what we continue to do.

Managing new Skunk Works contracts

Certainly that is a challenge but one I think that we’re up to. The good news is, even though ADP [aka Skunk Works] is only around, say, 3,000 people, I have access to the broader 20-plus-thousand people at Aeronautics as well as the close to a hundred thousand across the corporation. So it’s very common to be in one of my programs. I will have people from Marietta [Georgia] or Fort Worth [Texas], where our largest footprint is. I might have somebody from Missiles and Fire Control out of either Orlando [Florida] or the Texas location, or I might have somebody from Space systems working collaboratively on these things.

Finding enough of the right workers

We’re aggressively hiring here [at AIAA’s Aviation Forum], and so you will see our talent people here leading that. We have our engineering hiring manager here looking to find new hires, both college and experienced. We’re hiring a significant number of men and women to staff the existing contracts as well as prepare ourselves for new contracts.

Supersonic X-plane

That’s a really exciting program to finally see NASA back into the X-plane business. It gives our engineers a chance to do an X-plane that they haven’t done in a long time. You can come to Lockheed Martin tomorrow right out of college, go work for ADP and work on an X-plane. How many times can you say it? It’s a unique opportunity.

Out of the fish bowl