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At Reagan National Defense Forum, CEO Culp Says GE Aerospace Innovating for the Future of Military Aviation

Dianna Delling
December 06, 2023

Hundreds of leaders across the military, government, defense industry, and media gathered in Simi Valley, California, last weekend at the 10th annual Reagan National Defense Forum to discuss the current and future state of the U.S. military.

“Day to day, we’re right there with all of our military customers assuring readiness while we invest in next-generation platforms,” said GE chairman and CEO and GE Aerospace CEO Larry Culp.

GE Aerospace powers around two-thirds of U.S. military aircraft today, making it a natural partner for the forum. But many attendees may not have realized the fitting connection with the company’s past as well, considering both its 100-year history of partnering with the military and Ronald Reagan’s eight years hosting the TV program General Electric Theater in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Ronald Reagan spent eight years touring our factories, which represented a good bit of GE’s industrial base today,” Culp said.

GE Aerospace’s commitment to using its innovation expertise and experience to help the U.S. maintain air superiority hasn’t changed since President Reagan’s day, but the technology in those factories represents significant advances in aviation.

“In terms of engineering the next jet engine, we’re doing things today that we clearly couldn’t do a decade ago, because of additive manufacturing capabilities. We’re creating the capability to not only drive those advanced, more flexible designs but also to be able to put them into production more quickly,” Culp said. “We’re able to take a good bit of capability that we’re advancing on the commercial side of our business and bring it into the defense realm, which we think really is something that gives us additional advantage.”

In an interview with CNBC’s Morgan Brennan on the first day of the forum, Culp pointed to GE Aerospace’s XA100 adaptive-cycle engine as an example of what that innovation can produce — “really the first 21st-century combat engine,” which recently completed its third phrase of testing.

Larry Culp Reagan Forum
GE Chairman and CEO and GE Aerospace CEO Larry Culp onstage at the Reagan National Defense Forum. Top, from left: Sen. Roger Wicker, Undersecretary of Defense William A. LaPlante, Culp, Rep. Joe Courtney, and moderator Marcus Weisgerber, of Defense One. Images credit: GE Aerospace

Designed and built by GE Aerospace through the U.S. Air Force’s Adaptive Engine Transition Program, the XA100 delivers 20% more acceleration and 30% more range than today’s military jet engines. “Almost regardless of which platform it’s deployed on, that technology, that adaptive-cycle capability, really will be what assures Americans’ asymmetric leadership in propulsion,” he explained.

The ability to place innovative products and technologies like the XA100 engine into the hands of our military men and women requires strengthening the nation’s defense industrial base, the collection of private and public assets able to produce military equipment. The country’s defense industrial base is facing significant challenges as it recovers from the impact of COVID while facing increased demand driven by two wars. 

Culp took part in a debate on how to strengthen our defense industrial base, where he was joined by Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and William A. LaPlante, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, who provided a preview of the Pentagon’s National Defense Industrial Strategy. LaPlante explained the need for a public-private partnership to quickly scale up military manufacturing amid the rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. The initiative, he noted, will serve as a road map for how government and industry can work together. It will also include plans to address post-COVID challenges such as supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages that have hit manufacturing businesses across the board.

GE Aerospace, like many other companies, has turned to lean to improve operations to support the industry ramp and readiness of our customers. For example, in supply chain, the team is implementing a lean tool known as plan for every part, which is helping the team improve cash flow by allocating the right amount of inventory at the right place. The company has also made significant investments — $335 million in 2023 alone — to build manufacturing capacity. But Culp emphasized that it takes certainty and clarity from the government as well to ultimately meet future needs.

“Having the clarity and certainty of what’s required, not only in early-phase R&D but through the development and production cycle, is not only helpful from a financial perspective,” Culp said. “Operationally, if we’re going to hit those numbers as well, we need to be able to understand what that footprint needs to look like, not only in our facilities but, frankly, with our suppliers and with their suppliers.”

The importance of achieving this balance was driven home by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin in his keynote speech. Speaking on the theme of “peace through strength,” Austin acknowledged the importance of innovative technologies and preparedness: “Our strength abroad is rooted in our strength at home — and in our ability to stay ahead of coming challenges,” he said. “And that’s why we’ve pushed so hard to invest in innovation, and in our defense industrial base, and above all in our people.”