Marine photo

The F-35 turned 20 this year. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Leilani Cervantes)

WASHINGTON: Reader, let me tell you a secret: I’m not an especially deep person.

I like Starbucks’ peppermint mochas and Taylor Swift and stories about cool aircraft. I love drama, which is why I like watching reruns of Vanderpump Rules and writing (and reading) about conflict between different bureaucratic organizations.

Now that I’ve firmly lowered expectations, here are some of my favorite aerospace stories that Breaking Defense did in 2021. It’s a nondefinitive list; these stories were chosen because I thought they brought a fresh take on a familiar topic, because they represented some kind of interesting sea change for a program, or because I just think they’re fun holiday reading.

So pour yourself a glass of eggnog, cue up some TSwift (I’ve provided some helpful suggestions, which I will not explain) and settle in for some relaxing stories about warplanes:

[This article is one of many in a series in which Breaking Defense reporters look back on the most significant (and entertaining) news stories of 2021 and look forward to what 2022 may hold.]

1) Machinists Union Presses F-35 Jobs Campaign On Capitol Hill 

In the big wide world of defense trade journalism, we hear a lot from government leaders, corporate executives and program managers. Much more rare is a story that spotlights the blue-collar workforce who physically make the ships, aircraft and vehicles that the military buys — and the impact those employees can have on the weapons buying process. There should be more stories like this, that show how unions can help shape debate over procurement.

Taylor Swift Song You Should Listen to While Reading This Story: “ME!”

2) Air Force Culls ABMS Experiment After Budget Cut

2021 marked the year that the Air Force got real about the missteps of the Advanced Battle Management System program, its convoluted, often-opaque effort to connect its sensors and shooters. This story by Theresa Hitchens shows the program at a turning point, embattled by funding cuts and appearing to stall.

We didn’t know it then, but Air Force leaders would soon begin pushing for a new direction for ABMS with fewer experiments and more emphasis on buying and fielding real capabilities. The jury is still out on whether Congress will buy in this time.

Taylor Swift Song You Should Listen to While Reading This Story: “Look What You Made Me Do”

3) KC-46: Baby Steps To Wider Availability For Operators

The KC-46 had a pretty good year! After years of being a problem child for the Air Force and Boeing — beset by technical deficiencies, delays and cost overruns —  the aircraft finally matured to the point that Air Mobility Command approved it to conduct some operations for US Transportation Command.

Today, the KC-46 can be tasked to refuel a huge list of aircraft:  B-52, C-17, F-16, F-15, AC-130J Ghostrider, HC-130J Combat King II, MC-130J Commando II, C-5M Super Galaxy, E-3 Sentry, and other KC-46s. While the F-35, F-22 and A-10 still haven’t made the list due to technical problems with the tanker that still need to be resolved, the KC-46 has shown some growth, and we love to see it!

Taylor Swift Song You Should Listen to While Reading This Story: “You Belong With Me (Taylor’s Version)”

It’s Taylor Swift performing at an airport, which was the closest thing we could find to tie her to planes. (Gary Gershoff/WireImage)

4) The Air Force’s top civilian wants a drone wingman for the B-21 bomber

Come on, it’s a story about the Air Force wanting to buy an unmanned counterpart for the Air Force’s newest stealth bomber, which we still have not seen! That’s fun and interesting, and probably the most we are going to hear about this classified combat drone for a long, long time.

Taylor Swift Song You Should Listen to While Reading This Story: “Wildest Dreams (Taylor’s Version)”

5) The F-35 At 20: How Its Successes, And Failures, Shaped The Aerospace Industry 

I’m sick of explaining why I love writing about the F-35, but I emphatically love writing about the F-35, and this story especially was a joy to create. Two decades after the F-35’s down-select and first contract award, I think it’s worth taking a step back to look at its legacy, not just as an aircraft but in terms of how it’s influenced how other defense programs are structured.

In this story, I tried to capture the atmosphere surrounding the highly-anticipated 2001 contract decision, a time of uncertainty for the aerospace industry that crowned one defense prime and left another heartbroken. Maybe the most surprising realization I had writing this was that — even 20 years later — the defense industry hadn’t changed all that much, and certainly not in the way people expected.

Taylor Swift Song You Should Listen to While Reading This Story: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)”

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