It’s one of Okaloosa County’s oldest defense contractors, but it has both feet firmly planted in the future as it works on the highly advanced combat training system for the high-tech F-35.
March 17, 2015 Pensacola Today -- It’s one of Okaloosa County’s oldest defense contractors, but it has both feet firmly planted in the future as it works on the highly advanced combat training system for the high-tech F-35.
It’s one of the grand-daddies of Okaloosa County’s defense contractors, born the same year the Russians launched Sputnik, a time when computers took up entire rooms and Sabre jets were front-line fighters.
Fast forward to today. Space flight is routine, powerful computers can fit in the palm of a hand and robotic aircraft can fly without a pilot onboard. And that same company is still around, still working on cutting-edge electronics.
Now called DRS Training & Control Systems, the operation here has a 57-year heritage of defense work. In recent years it’s been involved in work for the most high-tech, costly weapons systems in the world, the F-35.
The company exists because of the activities at Eglin Air Force Base, a center for aerial weapons development and in more recent years pilot training for the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“Our geographic proximity to the base provides us with a unique advantage as a top tier supplier of Air Combat Training and Range Systems and Aircraft Mission Systems because we can design, build and test many of our products without ever leaving Northwest Florida,” said Larry Ezell, vice president and the general manager of DRS Training & Control Systems.
The company’s Okaloosa County headquarters, where about 300 strive each day to maintain America’s advantage in airborne warfare, is off a lightly traveled Fort Walton Beach street in a nondescript one story brick building.
Nobody from the outside seems to know what’s going on inside the building, and that appears to be the way those running the place like it.
“That’s not uncommon with business in the defense world,” said Okaloosa County Economic Development Council Executive Director Nathan Sparks, who himself confessed to knowing little about the work of DRS Training & Control Systems.
“Their business is not necessarily something they need to be talking about. They’ve got a job to do and they go about it the best way they see fit,” said Sparks.
But if longevity is any indication, DRS Training & Control Systems in its current and previous iterations has been doing it right. It arrived in Fort Walton Beach in 1957 as Metric Systems, a division of the California-based Canoga Electronics Corp., specializing in defense electronics for ship, land and aerial systems. The company really took off in the mid and late ‘70s, when Metric Systems began building radar threat simulators, a fantastic training tool for pilots, and won its first vertical launch system contract to put together electronics to assist Aegis-class warships in launching Tomahawk missiles.
Metric Systems was later absorbed by Houston’s Tech-Sym, and in 2000 Tech-Sym was bought by Integrated Defense Technologies (IDT) of Huntsville, Ala. The Fort Walton Beach operation became IDT Metric Systems.
Something particularly significant for the company happened in June 2003, when the team of IDT Metric Systems and Cubic Defense Applications of San Diego beat Boeing for a $525 million, 10-year contract to develop and deliver the next-generation combat training system for the Air Force, Navy, Marines and National Guard.
Under the contract, IDT Metric Systems provided 1,000 airborne systems for aircraft tracking, onboard weapon simulations and onboard data recording. Cubic provided the ground subsystem components. The P5 Combat Training System (P5CTS) took off and set the bar worldwide.
That same year, 2003, IDT was purchased by DRS Technologies, established in 1968 and now headquartered in Arlington, Va. But more changes were to come. In 2008 DRS Technologies was purchased for $5.2 billion by the Italian defense giant Finmeccanica SpA and became a wholly owned subsidiary.
That work with the P5 system continues to this day. On Jan. 5 Cubic issued a press release about a new multimillion-dollar series of contracts it got from Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md. It said Cubic and DRS will produce and add enhancements to the F-35’s P5CTS.
Cubic as prime contractor is responsible for performance in all areas of systems engineering, and for development, integration and installation of the ground instrumentation subsystem.
DRS as principal subcontractor is responsible for performance in all areas related to the P5CTS airborne instrumentation subsystem.
The news release said engineering work for the training systems will be performed in San Diego and Fort Walton Beach.
Unlike the wing-mounted pods used on fourth generation fighters, the F-35 version of the P5CTS incorporates an internally mounted subsystem that enables the F-35 to maintain its stealth characteristics while training.
The system has also been fully qualified for use during carrier takeoffs and landings, and “enables air wings to train while deployed aboard aircraft carriers at sea,” said the release.
Cubic and DRS will produce additional JSF P5 systems for production aircraft. Two enhancements will be made to the system including an upgrade to make the ground subsystem compliant to Microsoft Windows 7 operating system and an upgrade of the encryption capability for the P5.
The contracts come at a good time for DRS Training & Control Systems and Cubic, which also has a presence in Okaloosa County.
The county has as many as 300 defense-related companies, big and little, according to some estimates. A site that tracks defense-related government contracts shows the county with 542, which includes all companies that won Pentagon contracts, even those that provide services like lawn care.
But the last several years have been a struggle for many Northwest Florida aerospace companies, as slashed military budgets have limited outside spending, said Larry Sassano, president of Florida’s Great Northwest, a regional economic development group.
Figures back up that assessment. Companies in the county won 1,081 contracts totaling $609 million in 2011. That dropped to 736 contracts valued at $571 million in 2012 and dropped further to 674 valued at $441 million in 2013, according the the website contractswon. Indeed, DRS in 2012 had to lay off 150 local workers.
But that’s all part of the ebb and flow of the defense industry. The local DRS operation over the years has expanded and contracted.
But with a president seemingly amenable to loosening the tight binds of sequestration and a Republican Congress anxious to beef up the military, Sassano believes more work could be flowing into Okaloosa County.
“I think the rules are changing. I see more potential for contract work than we’ve seen in the last two or three years,” Sassano said. “That’s good for this area.”
Corporate HQs: Arlington, Va.
Local operation: DRS Training & Control Systems LLC
Location: 645 Anchors Street, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. 32548
Number of local workers: over 300
Focus areas: development, production and support of military Air Combat Training & Range Systems, Aircraft Mission Systems and Sustainment Programs & Services
Types of workers: assembly, fabrication and testing
Employment information: DRS Training & Control Systems Human Resources Department, 850-302-3100, or at the company website, www.drs.com
Note: DRS Training & Control Systems is an operating division of DRS Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Finmeccanica SpA, which has 70,000 employees worldwide. In the Gulf Coast region, DRS also owns Selex Galileo, which has an operation in Kiln, Miss., just outside NASA’s Stennis Space Center.