Thomas E. Laux

United States of America


Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Summer 2008

Thomas E. Laux, Program Executive Officer AIR ASW, Assault and Special Mission Programs, US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR)

Based at the Naval Air Weapons Center Aircraft Division, Patuxent River, Maryland, Tom Laux oversees NAVAIR’s rotary-wing development and procurement programs including the V-22 tilt-rotor and AH-1Z/UH-1Y, CH-53K, MH-60R/S, and VH-71 helicopters. Looking ahead, he notes, “Those are 30-year aircraft.”  In the past 30 years with NAVAIR, Mr. Laux has earned the Presidential Rank Awards for Distinguished and Meritorious Executive in the Senior Executive Service, and he has received Superior and Meritorious Civilian Service Medals. Mr. Laux is also an AHS Honorary Fellow.

Growing up in San Diego, California and Alexandria, Virginia, Tom Laux had a boyhood interest in model aircraft.  He was nevertheless drawn to engineering at Catholic University in Washington DC for practical reasons. “I considered college to be a trade school.  The whole point of college was to get a job. I think everybody has to do an assessment of what you’re good at, and  I think I assessed myself to be comfortable understanding why things work and how to make them work better.”

Graduating in 1976, the young engineer learned of the NAVAIR Engineer and Scientist Development Program that would both provide a job and pay for graduate school.  “The Navy was trying to make what today we would call a Systems Engineer. . . What they typically did prior to me was teach an airframe engineer propulsion, aerodynamics, etc.”  Tom Laux joined NAVAIR in February 1977 under John Bettino, then the Navy’s forward-thinking head of vertical flight engineering, and he began rotating through assignments.  “The guy that hired me said ‘I don’t want to see you for four years.’”  Successive six-month postings introduced the new-hire to helicopter performance, software, test, and evaluation, flight test, and other core disciplines.  The program also led to a Masters in mechanical engineering from Catholic University in 1979.

In his first NAVAIR assignment, Mr. Laux took part in the source selection for the LAMPS III helicopter engine.  He went on to work in each of the engineering disciplines associated with the SH-60B and returned to the Seahawk program repeatedly after other engineering excursions.  “The most challenging was the CH-53E Technical Evaluation Program,” Mr. Laux recalls.   The powerful, new CH-53E had suffered unexplained flight departures in the fleet.  “There was myth. There was rumor. There were some broken helicopters, but not a lot of good explanations.  We did not have within the rotorcraft engineering industry the tools required to make a helicopter become dynamically unstable.  The chief engineer of NAVAIR told me to fix it.”

The Technical Evaluation Program hired the same consultants who had fixed pitch instability problems in the first Space Shuttle.  Mr. Laux explains, “I was involved in adapting these fixed-wing instability techniques to a rotary-wing application.  It involved very high-order math, very theoretical development, and then the application in the flight test program.”  With no variable stability helicopter to fly, the team hung a CH-53E in elastic harnesses.  They varied the aircraft excitation frequencies to measure feedback in the Automatic Flight Control System and engine controls, and the effect on natural aircraft frequencies and harmonics.  Minor modifications to the CH-53E flight control computers and structures solved the problem.  “We identified some standard changes in phase and gain margin previously not applied to helicopters,” explains Mr. Laux.  “When we were done, we actually set a standard that immediately became used across other programs and is now taught at the Test Pilot School.” 

Through successive tours as assistant project engineer, project engineer, and senior project engineer, Tom Laux became the head of NAVAIR vertical flight engineering from 1987 to 1989.  He notes that NAVAIR engineering today is different from that practiced 20 years ago.  “We’ve added process discipline that we did not have back then. It was a simpler world, I guess.  We’ve added formal reviews and gate checks.  The Systems Engineering Technical Review process now at NAVAIR is a codified, formal process whereas before we relied on individual experience much more heavily.”

Time spent at the Defense Acquisition University in Fort Belvoir and an MBA from George Mason University helped turn the seasoned helicopter engineer into an acquisition manager in 1989. He observes, “The engineering process, although lagging where we are today, was still well ahead of the acquisition process.  The acquisition process was much more experience-based, based on whoever the key leaders of the time were.  There was a whole lot more coalition-building to get a particular approach sold.” 

Mr. Laux served as deputy program manager for the H-53 and H-60. He introduced the CH-53E Helicopter Night Vision System, launched concept formulation for the MH-60R, and advanced Total Quality disciplines in the Navy.  Regarding Lean Six-Sigma quality disciplines, he says today, “This stuff works. There shouldn’t be any doubt about it.”

 In 1993, Tom Laux became the program manager for the H-53 heavy lift and VH-3D and VH-60N Executive helicopters.  In 1996, he was made Deputy Program Executive Officer for Strike Weapons, overseeing Tomahawk, JSOW, JDAM, HARM, and Harpoon/SLAM acquisition.  He became the PEO for AIR ASW, Assault and Special Mission Programs in 2001 and this year oversees budgets totaling more than $60 billion, including recent multi-year contracts signed for the MV/CV-22 Osprey and MH-60R/S Seahawk.  

Though “multi-years” afford industry production stability and Government cost savings, Mr. Laux acknowledges,“Multi-year contracts in acquisition continue to be a bit of a challenge. .  . We’re forever trying to balance the requirements officers’ need to match fleet demand, which is changing as the world changes, with the premium you pay for that flexibility.”

NAVAIR rotorcraft programs have suffered dramatic cost increases, partly due to changing government requirements, but largely tied to unrealistic industry cost estimates.  “That is a key area going forward,” says Mr. Laux.  “We need to, working with the industry primes, come up with better historical tools which didn’t exist before, partly because we didn’t collect the root data in the first place.  We’re now doing a much more rigorous job requiring the primes to collect the data.”

Despite the rush to a global economy, US defense acquisition is also struggling with the risks and rewards of international suppliers winning major US defense contracts.  “The defense market is not the commercial market,” says Mr. Laux.  “We respond to the Congress and the policies the Congress sets out and dictates for us . . . So far, the Congress has been pretty clear in the law...There are no additions, no subtractions... We will follow the direction the Congress sets.  Right now that’s somewhat limiting, more on the open side, but there’s a lot of second-guessing.” 

Broader questions about preserving the rotorcraft industrial base are still to be answered.  Mr. Laux says, “I think the US industrial base needs to evolve and match what the fleet needs are.  I wouldn’t say so much we need to preserve the US industrial base.  We need to show that we have the ability to design, produce, and field the equipment that the fleet needs to deal with a progressively more challenging threat.  I view that as evolving the industrial base, not preserving it.”

The Global War On Terror has also changed the way NAVAIR does business.  “I think the data shows that with GWOT, the need to accelerate and sort of get through development and into production with whatever the modifications are has really shortened everyone’s time horizons.  It has shifted us away from S&T [Science and Technology] and basic research.  It has shifted us toward modification programs to get things out there now, now, now.”

Combat helicopter utilization three times peacetime norms complicates the tradeoff.  Mr. Laux explains, “Meanwhile we really are to a great extent using up the life of our aircraft, so we have a higher demand now to actually apply the lessons learned in our S&T programs, and we have fewer lessons learned because we have less S&T.  We’ve slowed down technological development because of that.”  One answer to the S&T shortfall is the Navy’s new Rotorcraft Center of Excellence standing up at Patuxent River.  Mr. Laux explains, “We’re going to do a better job of coordinating, collaborating, and prioritizing.”

In a competitive budget environment, new technology initiatives require careful choices. “The Navy strategy is going to continue to be From The Sea,” explains Mr. Laux.  “The whole challenge the Navy and Marine Corps are going to face is to get the warfighting material, equipment, and manpower from the sea base ashore.  All the aircraft needed to make that happen – a significant portion of them – are going to be rotary wing.  Making them heavier-lifting, faster, with better situational awareness and easier pilotage, is going to be a critical Navy focus.  The trouble is we’ve eaten our seed corn today in GWOT, and the opportunity to move out quickly on that is more challenging than it should have been.”

NAVAIR now looks to advance the state of the rotorcraft art beyond modification programs.  According to Mr. Laux, “Helicopters are about rotors. We need industry-wide advances.  I think that getting from the engines to the rotors through the transmissions is where we just need a whole lot more work. There really haven’t been fundamental significant advances in too long.  We’ve had incremental advances, and those are all good and needed, but its’ been a long time since we had fundamental improvements.”

Aircrew interfaces also remain a limiting factor in today’s multi-role rotorcraft.  According to Mr. Laux, “We have to do more to increase the effectiveness of the aircrew.  We have to make their decisions more straightforward -- how we make the aircraft talk to the aircrew.  There have been too many accidents where we had totally flyable aircraft lost because the aircrew did not understand what was going on with the aircraft.  Simplify, simplify, simplify is the answer -- simplified display of what the aircraft is doing and what the other aircrew are doing.”

Despite the need for new technology, US Naval rotorcraft expertise is aging – around 40% of NAVAIR’s engineers will attain retirement age in the next four years.  To counter the trend, “We’re hiring,” says Mr. Laux. “Tell everybody; we’re hiring.”  He adds, “We have great jobs.  We have outstanding work teams...That’s one of the things that’s kept me at NAVAIR -- the people, and the work, and knowing things you’re doing mattered.  The opportunity to make a difference as an individual on a team is huge at NAVAIR.  The folks we bring in are learning from the best.”

NAVAIR also recently formed a distance-learning partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School that enables student investigators to work real-world problems.  It is forming other ties with Johns Hopkins and other universities.   “I’d love to have a significant university presence at Pax River,” says Mr. Laux.  “The more opportunity we have to form partnerships like the Center of Excellence with academia, it makes NAVAIR stronger.”