Chris Pehrson is director of strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI).
The 24-year Air Force veteran is responsible for the company’s acquisition strategies and for promoting the company’s unmanned aircraft, sensors and reconnaissance radar systems.
Pehrson recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz, outlining how a successful acquisition process works and potential applications on the horizon for unmanned aerial vehicles and drones.
ExecutiveBiz: What is GA-ASI’s mission and what is your role in ensuring the company delivers on that mission?
Chris Pehrson: Our mission is to deliver cutting-edge, combat-capable, highly reliable and cost- effective unmanned aircraft systems to our customers. This includes not only the aircraft, but also ground control stations and sensor payloads.
My role within the company is to understand customer requirements and ensure that we’re meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
I survey and assess business opportunities in order to understand the strategic landscape, promote our solutions and ensure our programs meet cost, schedule and performance metrics.
ExecutiveBiz: How does your Air Force background assist you in your position and the day-to-day decisions you make?
Chris Pehrson: My career in the Air Force gave me an understanding of the organization, the culture and the processes used to reach decisions and how those decisions shape the Air Force.
Although I’ve taken off my uniform and traded it for a business suit, I am still engaged with many of the same people in the Pentagon and throughout the military that I’ve known for many years. These professional relationships are important because my responsibilities with the company go beyond the Air Force to include the Army, Navy, and more recently, the Marine Corps.
While on active duty, I was assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Deputy Director for Domestic Counterterrorism. The policy perspective I gained helped me understand how the U.S. engages in counterterrorism activity and gave me an appreciation for what technologies such as those provided by General Atomics can contribute to those efforts. Unmanned aerial vehicles and the situational awareness they bring are key enablers of counterterrorism efforts.
Having deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, I am able to approach customers with the knowledge and understanding of their requirements. Knowing how the systems are actually employed from the end-user perspective is invaluable in my new role as a provider of those systems.
ExecutiveBiz: What elements comprise a successful acquisition strategy?
Chris Pehrson: It’s an art and a science. An acquisition strategy includes knowing what the opportunities are, what the customer requirements are, and then making a solid business case.
Companies have to consider if it’s a good business decision to pursue an opportunity. Not every gap or requirement that the customer has is necessarily a good fit for the company. You have to know your core competencies and where you can make the best value proposition. It’s a courtship and both parties are working to find a win-win partnership.
Successful business acquisition also demands integrity and management of expectations. You only promise what you can deliver and then deliver what you promise. Successful acquisition doesn’t stop at the signing of the contract. It starts from the initial concept all the way through production, sustainment, and then finally to the retirement of the weapons system at the end of its life.
ExecutiveBiz: How does the company strive to do that?
Chris Pehrson: All of our major programs were developed on internal research and development. We have a great reputation for being innovators and we invest a lot of resources toward developing game changing technologies, whether it’s a UAV, data link or laser technology.
In the past, GA-ASI technologies have been brought to operational capability through Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, Quick Reaction Capability or other rapid fielding methods. As our programs mature and warfighter requirements evolve, we’re following more normalized acquisition processes, but we strive to maintain agility and rapid fielding capability.
Ultimately, it’s the relationships with our customers that determine our success. If something needs to be delivered and it needs to be reliable and effective and out there today or even yesterday, General Atomics has a great reputation for being able to do rapid prototyping and get a system out there.
ExecutiveBiz: What future applications of UAVs do you see in the U.S?
Chris Pehrson: It’s really a growth industry. There are some policy obstacles like integration into the National Airspace System, which we’re working towards with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department.
We have to make sure UAVs are integrated safely and that we have the right kind of oversight to make sure that we’re not getting in the way of general aviation or any other air traffic. Those are solvable concerns.
Once you open up the air space, new applications include disaster response, homeland defense, law enforcement, search and rescue, communication relays, agriculture, weather monitoring, and more. Customs and Border Protection is flying UAVs now to support emergency response efforts and provide border security. The use of UAVs in the U.S. is already occurring and the applications will continue to grow.
Forest firefighting is another application that is already fielded. NASA operates GA-ASI’s Ikhana UAV which was used to map and defeat forest fires in California, for example.
Communications relay is a use on the horizon. When communication networks are taken out by disasters, a UAV can be used to provide vital communication links for radios and potentially cell phones. A major advantage of the UAV is its persistence, often staying airborne for over 24 hours at a time.
There may be a time when state and local governments, whether National Guard, law enforcement, forestry or agricultural agencies, use UAVs. UAVs are inherently modular and have a plug-and-play architecture. Whatever kind of payload you can imagine putting on the wing or placing in the internal bay can likely be integrated on a UAV. They truly are versatile and multi-mission capable.
ExecutiveBiz: How does the company adapt to budgetary constraints and changing customer demand?
Chris Pehrson: Constrained budgets are kind of a dual-edged sword. On the one side, all the programs are suffering, ours included. It is evident that the number of UAVs being bought will be reduced. However, anything unmanned is generally cost-effective.
When you talk about an $80 million manned fighter versus a $10 million MQ-9 Reaper, it’s almost an order of magnitude difference in price and operating costs. When you fly a UAV, you don’t have to worry about all of the life support and environmental systems that would support a manned occupant in the cockpit. You can perform missions more efficiently because the platform can stay airborne for more than a day at a time, whereas an aircraft is limited by the typical endurance of the pilot.
The modularity makes it cost-effective since one day you might need it to be an airborne communications node so you just hang the communications payloads on the wing, and the next day you may need it to go out and do multispectral sensor missions, looking for caves in the mountains that may be emitting campfire heat. It’s the same platform doing those diverse missions.
I think it’s important to have an open conversation with customers to understand where they’re constrained and help them make informed decisions as to how they should allocate their limited resources. We definitely have those conversations, both about new initiatives and about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of existing programs. From a business perspective, we want to maintain a healthy market for our products while delivering the best products at the best value to our customers.