Cobb Chamber talks future of defense industry with local leaders

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Sep. 16—CUMBERLAND — The Cobb Chamber of Commerce welcomed two of Cobb's aeronautics and research leaders to its monthly luncheon this week to chat about the status and future of the local defense industry. Lockheed Martin's Rod McLean, the vice president and general manager of the air mobility and maritime missions line of business joined the panel along with James Hudgens, director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

What is GTRI?"I always get the question, what are you?" Hudgens said.

Put simply, GTRI is the applied research arm of Georgia Tech (applied research being the practical applications of science for a specific purpose).

From a national security angle, GTRI is also a Department of Defense-affiliated university research center. There are only 14 such "UARCs" in the country. GTRI is the second largest UARC and the only one in the Southeast.

"We sit side by side with the government to help them," Hudgens said. "We develop and maintain core capabilities for them. We help them to find new systems. We help them along their entire path of acquiring technology."

Founded 87 years ago as a state of Georgia-funded engineering experiment station, it originally was focused on economic development, especially agriculture. In World War II, GTRI was involved in developing radar and communications systems.

The institute has been in Cobb County since the late 1970s — its main office, located near Lockheed Martin, was once a Lockheed research center.

National security research is a major part of GTRI's mission today — the institute works on radar systems, electronic warfare and "swarming autonomy" — think groups of artificial intelligence-powered drones fighting as a unit. GTRI also works on hypersonics, Hudgens said. Hypersonic vehicles or weapons are those that travel Mach 5 or faster (five times the speed of sound).

Other projects are involved in advanced prototypes for electronic protection systems, wargaming, working on the "digital transformation" of the military and harnessing the power of 5G technology for the military.

Not all of the institute's work is centered around national security. Promoting economic development is still a mission of GTRI, and there are still agricultural clients of the institute. Hudgens mentioned developing robotics for the poultry industry as an example.

In another venture, GTRI helped develop a new, wireless in-flight entertainment system for Delta Air Lines which reduces plane weight and thus emissions.

GTRI's data analytics work has also been used in the COVID-19 pandemic.

"A lot of the data you see coming out of CDC has used our analytic methods to understand how to interpret that data," Hudgens said,

Pillar of the community

Lockheed Martin's presence in Cobb County is older and perhaps better known. Dating back to its days as the Bell Bomber plant during World War II, the aerospace company now employs about 4,500 people in Cobb, McLean said.

"We were, at our peak, about 33,000," McLean said. "I don't think we'll ever get that high again, we just don't build things the way that we did many years ago."

Lockheed has a $1.3 billion economic impact in Georgia, McLean said, a key part of that being the 400 or so local suppliers that the company works with.

Lockheed's Marietta operation designs and builds planes for the U.S. military and its allies — McLean mentioned Indonesia and Germany as two current clients.

C-130 production is a well-known part of Lockheed's local operations and one of the "foundational programs" at Lockheed.

"And what makes that airplane so unique is that this one aircraft, but it serves many missions," McLean said.

The C-130J Super Hercules is the current iteration of the plane. Different variants of the C-130 are for troop transport, cargo transport and firefighting, as well as variants built for special missions and attack purposes.

One of Lockheed's current initiatives is working on a study with Georgia Tech to try and enable aircraft to fight fires at night.

The center wing of the F-35 combat plane is also produced in Marietta, with 690 units produced to date. Some F-22 work is done there too — McLean said a couple are brought in for maintenance each month.

Also at the Lockheed site is a low-speed wind tunnel which McLean said automotive designers use for aerodynamic testing.

Lockheed recently completed a $40 million investment in its Marietta facility to create the "factory of the future," though McLean didn't share many details of that renovation, saying it was classified.

Lockheed, too, is working on hypersonics, especially on the problem of the immense heat buildup that occurs with such speed. The company is also doing work to reduce electronic and heat signatures that aircraft emit to make them more stealthy, McLean said.

Asked to expound upon partnerships, McLean said Lockheed is inextricably tied to Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

"Not only do we share the runway, but we definitely share many different facilities and resources to ensure that we both can operate, and we can't operate without one another," McLean said.

The discussion touched on Senate Bill 6, a Georgia law passed earlier this year which contains tax breaks for defense contractors and which officials said will bring more jobs to Lockheed.

McLean said the legislation enables Lockheed to increase its operations and potentially grow by hundreds, or thousands, of employees. The tax credits levels the playing field with other states, he said.

"Those tax incentives are critically important, because many of those states where the other competitors reside have those benefits already in place," McLean said.

As to continuing the growth of Cobb's defense industry, McLean asked the audience to support improved STEM education in Cobb schools.

"There's a huge need for companies to get engaged, to reach out to a whole community," McLean said. "To help develop, nurture and mature, it provides ... hope and inspiration to the youth that's out there, because without their talent, we're all going to suffer."

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