The American warplane-maker—traditional provider of dazzling but expensive tactical aircraft—is under pressure to tighten up his act.
Even the most ardent proponents of building sophisticated new planes and equipment to bolster the US Air Force are turning their guns on overenthusiastic weaponeering that brings needless expense.
They warn that USAF’s need to produce a top-rank 1990s force during the coming years of budgetary retrenchment will greatly increase the capacity of undisciplined programs to create utter havoc.
The magnitude of the requirement, as 1988 dawns, for a lean-and-mean approach to arms-making becomes apparent from looking at the long list of ambitious Air Force programs on tap, including plans to:
• Build a new fighter—on paper, a technological jewel—at what is viewed as a bargain-basement price.
• Expand USAF ground-attack power without, it now seems, adequate funding to build a new-generation, close air support airplane.
• Magnify the wizardry of the USAF electronic combat forces even while staying within the confines of existing aircraft.
These are openers. Overall, the task will be to produce airpower more marvelous than that brought out in years gone by but in a climate of austerity that will afford little, if any, margin for error.
This problem is hardly a military secret.
Today, signs are evident that a new ball game is under way at Air Force Systems Command’s Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio—proving ground for the future tactical airplanes and assorted hardware.
There, key officials—preparing to absorb major funding cuts imposed by Congress—are taking direct aim at unnecessary expense. And they are surprisingly blunt about the need for tight discipline.
Listen to Lt. Gen. William Thurman, ASD’s Commander: “We’ve had programs here where for thirty percent of the money we could have ninety percent of the capability. Should we always try to get the last ten percent? Should we always strive for that final, few percentage points of capability that adds the majority of the cost?”
The theme is being taken up by pilots who, in most circumstances, hanker for the latest and best in all matters that involve aircraft.
“The technologist always has got a lot of technology in the laboratory,” says Maj. Gen. J. M. Loh, ASD’s Vice Commander, formerly a requirements official at Hq. USAF and a combat veteran. “The tendency is to try to shove everything into the next system because the one after that won’t come for twenty years. But if you’re going to be smart, you have to put limits on what you try to do.”
The Stakes Are Huge
Whatever the ultimate course that ASD takes, Air Force leaders acknowledge that the stakes—for USAF and the nation—are huge. In the 1990s, its aircraft will have to be up to the test of battle against new, improved Soviet forces, and that means more capability—much more.
Even so, in the wake of painful budget cuts—and in light of the reality that more will come—these weapons must be affordable. If not, say officials, they are destined to remain paper airplanes forever.
For a close look at the progress and problems of the nation’s program to build the tactical fighting force for the 1990s, AIR FORCE Magazine spoke with top ASD officials, civilian aerospace experts, and Pentagon figures. From this, one can begin to get a feel for how the Air Force is planning to cope with harsh financial pressures.
The consensus of these experts—backed by evidence on display at ASD—is that there is cause for optimism that USAF will be able to hack the demanding task it faces. The quest for high performance is there, but it is blended with a new sense of discipline.
Nowhere are pressures to change the traditional way of aircraft-making more evident than in development of a sophisticated fighter for air superiority—the Advanced Tactical Fighter.
The ATF, the first new USAF fighter program in a generation, now shapes up as the ultimate test case for airplane builders.
USAF is not budging on its plan to field a wonder of an airplane for the mid-1990s—stealthy, nimble, far-seeing, lethal, and with a surfeit of power and ability to fight around the clock without pause.
The goal, in fact, remains development of an aircraft that will be twice as good by every measure as USAF’s F-15, the world’s top gun.
The catch is that the allowable cost barely exceeds that of the F-15. The ATF is now being pegged at a unit flyaway price (in 1985 dollars) of no more than $35 million based on production of seventy-two ATFs per year up to a run of 750 aircraft. Each F-15 costs about $30 million.
The result: ASD is now working feverishly to prove its claim that its highly touted technologies of digital avionics, propulsion, and materials can be combined with fiscal discipline to build and operate a red-hot plane more efficiently, more reliably, and more inexpensively than ever.
How is the highly secretive, top-priority program progressing
From Col. James Fain, manager of the ATF program, comes this assessment: “The $35 million is going to be tough, but technology will help us get there. Now, please don’t go out and print that Fain thinks that it’s a piece of cake, because I damn sure didn’t say that. What I did say is the technology’s out there and if we are able to harness it, we’ll make the $35 million [goal].”
One cause for optimism is competition. ASD is prodding two pairs of aerospace contractors to develop, respectively, flying aircraft and engines. The expectation is that the process will drive down costs.
Flying Prototypes by 1989
Highest hopes for efficiencies rest on the two contractor teams who are to produce flying prototypes by 1989, plus avionics. Northrop (paired with McDonnell Douglas) and Lockheed (teamed with General Dynamics and Boeing) were chosen in October 1986 to hammer together two ATF prototype aircraft each, with both teams working from $691 million contracts. Lockheed’s plane is the YF-22A; Northrop’s is the YF-23A.
Each is producing not only planes but ground-based prototypes of the ATF’s avionics system. Signs point to progress on both fronts.
• Airframe Prototypes. Northrop and Lockheed are responsible for integration of their respective aircraft and have sole power to decide which combinations and permutations promise greatest efficiencies.
USAF’s demands are high. The service expects the plane to boast low observability, high maneuverability, high reliability, and ease of maintenance and repair. Gross takeoff weight of the ATF cannot exceed 50,000 pounds—far less than the 68,000 pounds of the F-15.
Explains Colonel Fain: “We have said: ‘OK, Mr. Contractor. We have given you a very tough job. You’ve got to go off and do a lot of work to come back and convince us what the right requirements should be.”
They are doing so. Each is producing studies of the kinds of harsh tradeoffs in capabilities that will be required on their airplanes.
Use is being made of weight-saving composite materials, reliable fiber optics, and digital computing in the flight controls and advanced low-observables (LO) technologies.
Even at this stage, the shape of the airplane has finned up. “The aerodynamics of the plane are pretty well set,” says Colonel Fain.
One reason for that, say officials, may be that ATF contractors have been helping themselves to the valuable results of prior laboratory programs conducted by ASD’s Wright Aeronautical Laboratories.
Among these may be the AFTI/F-16 Mission Adaptive Wing program, which for several years has been testing a variable camber wing that may well have application to the ATE The program has proven that smooth-skin, variable-camber wings—which change shape by means of internal devices in order to sustain peak aerodynamic efficiency—have the potential to make major improvements in range and maneuverability.
In Phase II of the program, running through this summer, the Flight Dynamics Lab is at the point of testing the test-bed F- ill in a fully automated manner. Ron DeCamp, FDL’s point man for the program, says it is proceeding with no slips, hitches, or surprises.
Whether one or both ATF contractors is using the new wing design is unknown. “The concept of the mission adaptive wing . . . is something that may or may not be in the airplane,” says an ATF program official. “But clearly, both contractors are looking at the benefits.”
All USAF planes—the ATF included—are benefiting from ASD’s AFTIIF-16 program on experimental flight controls. It is possible that ATF will incorporate one or more of its technologies, such as digital, flyby-wire control technologies.
ASD claims it has resolved what had appeared to be conflicting goals—a stealthy airplane, on the one hand, and a hot one on the other. It was initially believed that the properties that led to the first canceled out the second. Now they are seen as complementary. “We think,” maintains General Thurman, “that we can build a highly maneuverable, stealthy airplane. . . . We’re finding we can have both. That’s pretty exciting stuff.”
• Avionics Prototypes. Even more important in terms of both the cost and capability of the ATF is the promise of revolutionary leaps in avionics sophistication.
The fighter’s avionics will be highly integrated within the framework of the Pave Pillar architecture developed in recent years in ASD’s Avionics Laboratory. At its core is the common signal processor for such elements as the radar and communications systems. The whole affair will make extensive use of common modules to tie signals into a single, easily digested whole.
“We like to say that the avionics is one subsystem,” says Lt. Col. Mike Borky of the ATF office, “not a collection of subsystems.”
Hopes run high that the new avionics will help control ATF costs and size. For example, the system’s heavy use of very-high-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) technology means lighter weight, less bulk, and more reliability. “By using the VHSIC,” says Colonel Fain, “I can—on one of those chips—have ten times the computer capacity of the F-15’s total computer. On one little chip!” Less weight usually means less cost.
In addition, common modules promise to come in at prices far below those of individual “black boxes” of the type now in use.
The prototype effort is drawing heavily on work that has been under way in ASD labs for years—including the Integrated Navigation and Electronic Warfare System and the Integrated Communications, Navigation, and Identification Avionics system.
Of particular interest to ATF contractors, it seems clear, will be another program known as ICAAS for Integrated Control and Avionics for Air Superiority—now being pursued by the Flight Dynamics Lab with assistance from the Avionics Lab. Its ambitious goal is to blend the avionics and flight controls of aircraft in ways that will provide high numerical leverage during combat.
Program manager James Kocher believes that it is possible to provide a system that permits US fighters, though outnumbered four to one, to shoot down enemy planes at a favorable rate often to one. The program, for which contracts were let last September, is independent of but obviously germane to ATF development.
ATF contractors are working to have their ground-based avionics prototypes ready in the 1990 time frame, early enough to deal with any problems and to provide confidence that the whole system can, in the real world, be put together.
Still, avionics is the biggest worry. “In the ATF program in general, the long pole in the tent is avionics,” asserts Colonel Fain. “Avionics has been the long pole in the tent of every airplane that has ever been built.”
The Competing Powerplants
In the development of the ATF’s engines, too, competitive pressures are being stoked in hopes of reducing the cost and ensuring high reliability of the warplane’s power-plants. Both Pratt & Whitney, with its YF119 engine, and General Electric, with the YF120, are at work on what they hope will be a winning design worth billions.
Those ATF engines will greatly surpass those of the F-i5 and the F-16 in terms of their thrust-to-weight ratios measured at supersonic speed. They will enable the ATF to cruise supersonically over long distances without using afterburners. An impossibility in the current generation of fighters, this supersonic persistence will provide ATF with great range and will drastically reduce infrared signatures.
The prototype engine program is now going full blast, with both engines having run successfully, and will continue to 1991. Each contractor will build three engines, and each type will fly in both prototypes.
The engines, which may be made capable of reversing thrust, would then enhance the ATF’s short-landing capability and certain maneuvering capability. Vectoring the engine’s thrust would give the aircraft short-takeoff capability and greatly enhance its maneuverability in all combat regimes.
There are problems. Colonel Fain acknowledges that, to include the thrust-reversing and thrust-vectoring properties, “there is a tremendous weight penalty on that airplane. Also a cost penalty.” The problem, at this writing, was being reviewed at high levels. It is certain that the nozzles will be two-dimensional, but the vectoring/reversing aspect is less so.
To try to solve the problem, engine contractors will be able to draw on the fruits of yet another ASD experimental program, the Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) demonstrator plane. This is an F-15B plane modified, among other ways, with a P&W engine equipped with the thrust-vectoring and -reversing nozzles.
The demonstrator is moving closer to tests. First flight of the basic airplane, with standard nozzles, is set for early summer. Then, in the fall of 1988, the exotic nozzles will be mated to the test-bed aircraft and taken aloft for a tryout.
Lt. Col. Bill Neely, head of the STOL demonstrator program, notes that the nozzle is “by far the most challenging” aspect of the program. There have been fabrication problems. In addition, engineers are still struggling to reduce the weight of the engine.
“Those nozzles are the key to the whole program,” says Colonel Neely. “There’s a weight penalty for building a 2-D vectoring and reversing nozzle. But if you get the performance, it’s worth it.”
ATF contractors are getting some breaks. For one thing, it appears that some of the stringent demands on the ATF design might be eased. Such changes are expected to occur in years ahead as the Air Force gains a clearer idea of the nature of Soviet aircraft designs that will be developed for the 1990s.
At present, the program still appears on schedule. The current demonstration and validation phase will run into 1990, when prototype ATFs and their engines will undergo flight tests. The aircraft and engine winners will then be picked to start producing operational airplanes by the mid-1990s.
Whatever the schedule, this much is clear: ATF will come in at no more than $35 million per copy and at no more than 50,000 pounds, or it may not come in at all. As Colonel Fain puts it: “The Air Force is very serious about that.”
It is not only the air-superiority aircraft that is feeling the budgetary pinch. Less apparent, but equally serious, are cost pressures affecting USAF ability to upgrade its ground-attack capabilities.
Though it has a readily evident need to develop the next-generation close air support/battlefield air interdiction aircraft to replace A-10 planes that will start retiring in the 1990s, the start of a new development program at ASD apparently is not in the cards.
Money—or the lack of it—is the problem. The Air Force in recent years was forced to shelve a late-blooming proposal for a new CAS/BAI craft, the better to protect higher-priority programs threatened by the incipient budget crunch. Now the issue has been revived in the form of an ASD study, due in March, of alternatives to replace the A-10.
If the words of senior officials at ASD are any indication, however, the proposal will fare no better this time around. “You don’t want to develop a new close air support aircraft if you can do it in a cheaper way just as effectively,” says General Loh. “That is the approach we’re taking. There is just no money for a new start.” General Loh’s opinion is echoed by Air Force Under Secretary James McGovern, among other senior civilian leaders.
Inasmuch as there is agreement that the A-10 will not survive interdiction flights over the European battlefield of the 1990s, the obvious question becomes how to replace it.
The most likely answer is that the Air Force will pursue a less expensive, two-track solution based on two existing warplanes.
One is the A-7 aircraft, 336 of which are maintained in the Air National Guard inventory. At present, ASD is overseeing a modest prototyping effort aimed at upgrading the A-7 into an “A-7 Plus” with improved aerodynamics, avionics, and engines. The goals are to increase the plane’s survivability and extend its useful life by twenty years.
Congress provided $35 million in 1987 to start the modification with an eye toward possible modernization of the entire A-7 fleet, if the idea pans out in tests. Approval is not certain, even though TAC has expressed a keen desire to press ahead. The main concern is to reduce the inherent vulnerability of such a single-engine aircraft.
In any event, the A-7 is not the final answer. “As I see it, the A-7 is a placeholder,” says Col. Don Ruths, program manager, meaning that the updated A-7 Plus would serve to bridge to something better.
Something better, in all likelihood, will be some variant, or variants, of the ever-popular F- 16 multi-role aircraft.
Already, some of the burden falls on F-16Cs. Moreover, Block 40 of the F-16C production run, slated to be introduced into the force starting next December, will be even better suited for the mission. Equipment will include gear for attacking at night and in bad weather as well as digital flight controls and automatic terrain-following devices. It will be able to carry the HARM and Shrike antiradar missiles for use in defense suppression. Plans call for building 450 of these aircraft.
What Air Force officials prefer, and what ASD officials say is eminently feasible, is to transform the F-16 into a dedicated CAS/BAI aircraft—an “A-16″—with tailored systems for ground attack. The F-16’s manufacturer, General Dynamics, is pressing for this.
The Case for Agile Falcon
Making the idea even more attractive, in the view of key ASD officials, is GD’s blueprint for the so-called “Agile Falcon.”
In essence, this is a scheme to give the F-16 a twenty-five percent larger wing, minor aerodynamic changes, and a hotter engine. In the process, the F-16 would be able to hold on to the punch it has acquired through years of modification yet be able to reclaim the agility of its earlier, lighter versions.
The point, say ASD officials, is that the Agile Falcon configuration—speedy, nimble, and muscular—might well turn out to be an ideal aircraft design to handle the A-16 type of mission and may be proposed as such.
“I think it’s fair to say that those prospects are good,” remarks Maj. Gen. Robert D. Eaglet, head of the F-16 Deputate at Wright-Patterson. The first potential application of the Agile Falcon that USAF reviewed was for close air support and battlefield air interdiction. ASD officials add that USAF might also want to procure Agile Falcon-type aircraft for the swing air-to-air role to complement the ATE All such matters are the province of TAC.
What will such a plane cost to develop? GD itself estimates $600 million, while General Eaglet puts it at “several hundred million.” Even so, this pales in comparison with the billions that could be spent on a new airplane-development program.
The F-15, more than a decade in service and still the best air-superiority fighter in the world, is rapidly coming to the fore in the area of ground attack as well. The most recent variant, the F-15E dual-role fighter newly in production, is slated to perform both the air-to-ground and air-to-air missions deep behind enemy lines better than any US fighter ever.
Long in the making, the F-15E is now in hand. The first version of this aircraft rolled out little more than a year ago. Now, two are undergoing testing at Edwards AFB, Calif., and, at this writing, have logged more than 100 successful flights.
Thus far, says program head Col. Mel Hiyashi, the testing has turned up only minor glitches, one of them being gremlins in the area of weapons separation at transonic speeds.
The Air Force plans to buy 392 F-15Es over the next decade. Put together for the demanding deep-interdiction mission, they are expected to be superior in many ways to the F-111 that they will replace over the next several years. The most obvious improvement is the F-15E’s ability to fight its way into and out of enemy territory in the face of hostile aircraft.
The F-15E is the heavyweight of its line. This model boasts a range increase of some forty percent on missions requiring heavy payloads.
Maximum allowable takeoff weight-81,000 pounds—exceeds the closest F-15 model by 13,000 pounds. Its computer can store four times as much information and process it three times faster.
Powered by either the P&W F100-220 or -229 engines or the GE F1l0-100 or -129 engines, the F-l5Es will be built for carriage of conformal fuel tanks to give them the range they need for deep flights.
“It’s taking advantage of an investment we’ve already made in the F-15 program,” says one officer. “The F- 15E will show up in interdiction for a long time to come—until we have to replace the F-111.”
Advantages of LANTIRN
The F-l5Es and the F-16s both will have an advantage in years ahead. For the ground-attack mission, they will be bootstrapped up to higher performance levels by the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system.
Against long odds, ASD has brought the LANTIRN system out of a technological thicket of not too many years ago. Consisting of extremely complex navigation and targeting pods and a, head-up display in the cockpit, it makes possible the tactical pilot’s dream of being able to attack targets at night and under poor weather conditions.
The navigation pod provides infrared imagery of the darkest terrain, permitting the pilot to fly securely to a target area. The targeting pod, in turn, magnifies a particular portion of the darkened landscape to make possible precision attack.
The LANTIRN navigation pod was approved in November 1986 for high-rate production. The decision was based on successful testing of the system to maximum specifications. Production of 143 of these navigation pods began in 1986 and continued through 1987. A request to produce eighty-one targeting pods was approved by senior Air Force leadership this past fall.
The F-l5Es will go operational with LANTIRN about one year before it starts to appear on F- 16s. But not all F-16s will sport the system. Only about 350 of the planes will have LANTIRN capability.
The Air Force, at present, projects that it will spend $3.2 billion for a full complement of 700 LANTIRN sets, plus twenty-nine sets of support equipment and a complete depot, by the mid-1990s.
Also on tap for the F-16 and the F-IS is another dramatic but cost-reducing improvement known as the Increased Performance Engine. This program, now under way at ASD, is to produce uprated Pratt & Whitney F100-220 and General Electric Fl10-100 powerplants for installation into these two aircraft in the early 1990s.
Plans call for improvement of thrust from about 24,000 pounds today to 29,000 pounds while staying at nearly the same weight. “There’s going to be a lot of extra power,” says Mike Cassidy, manager of the Pratt & Whitney version of the IPE. In use are advanced materials and new internal designs for the engines.
As with the fighter and ground-attack forces, there’s no excess of money in the electronic combat area, either.
Rarely have these types of aircraft been more important or under greater pressure than they are today. “The [TAC] users,” says Col. Ralph Graham, chief of electronic warfare and strike systems at ASD, “very definitely have big problems out there today. The electromagnetic spectrum that we’re dealing with these days is exponentially more complex than it was just ten years ago. Out of that exponentially more complex spectrum, we’ve got to be able to pick out single pulses, and they’re coming out at millions of pulses per second.”
Two Promising Upgrades
At present, the Air Force is proposing to counter this threat with two principal programs, both of which are upgrades to existing aircraft.
The first would modernize the EF-111A Raven aircraft, the prime source of standoff jamming, close-in electronic support, and penetration escort for US warplanes. There are only forty-two such aircraft in the entire inventory.
Plans call for a three-phase approach to the upgrade. ASD is now engaged in the first phase—updating the ALQ-99E processor that is considered the heart of the system. The processor handles signals from the risk environment, processing all the information. At the same time, ASD is doing a modification to the exciter, which generates the types of waveforms that are transmitted back at the enemy.
Due in part to a gloomy budget climate, ASD decided to stretch out the three-phase project. The first phase is expected to cost $300 million, and the second two phases haven’t yet been approved. Should they be, it would be close to the year 2000 before the fully upgraded weapon systems came into the inventory. That’s a span of sixteen years since the program began in 1984.
The second major program is the F-4G Wild Weasel Performance Update Program, or “PUP.”
The idea is to modernize the electronic guts of the Wild Weasel, whose mission it is to detect, identify, locate, and destroy hostile radar emitters by use of antiradiation missiles, standoff munitions, or conventional bombs. There are about 100 F-4Gs in the inventory.
Once again, the system has been slowly overmatched by the multiplying electronic threat it faces. “It’s a proven capability, and you have to update it for the same reason as [you do] the EF-111A,” says an ASD officer at work on the program.
The program is two-phased. The first phase is to upgrade the computer, the most critical part. The second phase is to go after a better receiver. Officials maintain that the $900 million project could add at least thirteen years of life to the F-4G Wild Weasels.
The Air Force is moving slowly toward the replacement of the aging F-4G, eventually, with a newer aircraft. The service is moving with great caution on this project. At the current pace, the first replacement plane might not become available until the late 1990s, if then.
No matter how severe the budget crunch in years ahead, this much is clear: There will be no letup in the service’s demand for aircraft of high—even overpowering—quality. There can be little doubt that ASD knows it is on its mettle to come up with all that power but at bargain prices.
As General Thurman puts it: “We are under pressure to produce.”