|At 57, company still on cutting edge
By Tom McLaughlin
...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
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-
Cubic as prime contractor is responsible for performance in all areas of systems
engineering, and for development, integration and installation of the ground
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
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
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.”
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