Christopher Emerson, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Airbus U.S. Space & Defense. Credit: Airbus

WASHINGTON — Airbus is reorganizing its U.S.-based operations in an effort to strengthen its position in the space and intelligence markets, officials said July 15.

A new business unit, called Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, will focus on the military, intelligence and NASA markets, said Christopher Emerson, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Airbus U.S. Space & Defense. He was previously the president of Airbus Helicopters.

Speaking on a video chat with reporters, Emerson said the new unit operates under a Special Security Agreement with the U.S. government that allows it to compete for highly sensitive national security and defense contracts.

The Special Security Agreement requires Airbus’ U.S. business to be run by an independent board of directors that is not managed by the parent company’s corporate leadership in France.

Airbus U.S. Space & Defense will be headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Its newly appointed boards of directors and advisors are packed with former U.S. government and senior military officials.

Emerson noted the financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic on Airbus’ commercial business. Meanwhile, “Governments around the world have been open for business over the past four months,” he said. The reorganization of the company’s U.S. business is intended to bring Airbus’ commercially developed technology into the government market.

The primary markets for Airbus U.S. Space & Defense are military aircraft, geospatial intelligence and satellites.

Jose Antonio de la Fuente was named head of Airbus U.S. Military Aircraft; Didier Cormary head of Airbus U.S. Connected Intelligence; and Debra Facktor head of Airbus U.S. Space.

OneWeb Satellites

Airbus has a 50% stake in OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture Airbus and OneWeb created in 2016 to build hundreds of satellites for the OneWeb constellation.

The recent OneWeb Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sale of OneWeb to the U.K. government have not led to any change in Airbus’ plan to continue manufacturing satellites at the company’s factory in Florida, said Emerson.

“Our venture in Florida was the first step we took to expand our business in the U.S.,” he said. “We are committed in the United States, to the facility in Florida.”

The plant has been idle recently but will start ramping up and producing satellites for OneWeb under its new ownership, Emerson said. Airbus also is pursuing new customers looking for commoditized low-cost satellites.

“We hired a dedicated space engineering team to continue to modify the OneWeb satellite bus to be used by more customers in the U.S.,” said Emerson. The supply chain is being “Americanized” so satellites can be offered to the U.S. Defense Department, intelligence agencies and NASA.

OneWeb Satellites “is a critical asset for us,” said Emerson. “You’ll see more than just one product.”

Facktor, chief of Airbus U.S. Space, said the company sees a strong demand from the U.S. government for low Earth orbit satellites. “We’re leveraging that factory in Florida,” she said. “OneWeb has 74 sats in orbit. That gives us a lot of heritage, which is what you need in this business to demonstrate you can execute.”

Civil space, geospatial intelligence

Emerson said Airbus plans to offer space technologies to NASA for its exploration efforts. “There is greater complexity in requirements, and we see an opportunity,” he said.

The traditional model is for NASA to use Airbus technology via its partnerships with the European Space Agency or government-to-government agreements. Airbus wants to also partner with companies like Lockheed Martin or others to deliver space technology to the U.S. government, said Emerson. “We will build supply chains in the U.S. to support programs long term.”

Airbus also plans to pursue U.S. intelligence agencies’ contracts for geospatial imagery and data analytics services.

Emerson said the company recently received a commercial remote sensing license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to sell high-resolution imagery captured by satellites.

“We’re building a business case to sell commercial high-resolution imagery in the U.S. to government and commercial customers,” he said. That includes optical imagery and also synthetic aperture radar imagery, as well as machine learning algorithms to analyze the data.

Cormary said the company will review the upcoming National Reconnaissance Office solicitation seeking U.S. commercial imagery suppliers and will consider submitting a bid.

“Our business is first and foremost commercial,” he said. “We’re looking at opportunities.”

Members of the Airbus U.S. Space & Defense Board of Directors

  • Letitia Long, former director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
  • Frank Miller, former Defense Department official
  • Retired Gen. William Shelton, former commander of the Air Force Space Command
  • Mark Sirangelo, member of the DoD Defense Innovation Board and former head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems
  • Retired Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, former Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense

Members of the Airbus U.S. Space & Defense Board of Advisors

  • Michael J. Bayer, chairman of the Defense Business Board
  • Robert Cardillo, former director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
  • Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of State
  • Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army
  • Kathryn Condon, former Defense Department official
  • Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, former director of aviation of the U.S. Army
  • Retired Vice Adm. James Zortman, former commander of U.S. Naval Air Forces

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...