Washington, D. C.—Col. Larry D. Welch took charge of the first USAF operational wing of F-15 Eagles at Langley AFB, Va., on August 1, 1975. Today, as Air Force Chief of Staff, General Welch recalls “lots and lots of headaches” with those hot new fighters through the two years of his command. At their best, his wing’s F-15s were the world-beaters they were supposed to be, but they weren’t at their best often enough. Their newly minted F100 engines generated terrific thrust, but were all too temperamental, tending to falter in high-performance flight.
Critics of the F-15 program had a field day.
The fighter’s problems were resolved with the passage of time. Its unparalleled air-superiority attributes are now taken for granted. They have been universally acknowledged and admired for so long that the F-15’s growing pains have subsided into the past.
General Welch draws “an interesting lesson” from the Air Force’s initially troubled but ultimately triumphant experience with its Eagles, a lesson he wishes that critics of all new weapons encountering problems would keep in mind.
As he expressed it in a recent interview: “Today’s weapon systems are highly complex. A maturing process is required during their testing and following their introduction into the force. It is unrealistic to expect perfection of them at the point of their introduction.
“There is no possibility of testing a new weapon system in an environment that will cover all of the circumstances—all of the things that it will be subjected to—in an operational environment. We expect the maturing process to continue in that environment, and we believe that this is the most effective approach for us to take.
“The time and cost that would be involved in trying to introduce initially perfect weapons into the operational environment would be prohibitive.”
The Chief of Staff’s point is especially pertinent at this time. Now that money is tight and military forces and requirements are being reassessed with an eye to paring expenses, the capabilities and costs of emergent weapons are being scrutinized ever more sharply.
General Welch welcomes the scrutiny and notes that the Air Force is a prime participant. But he would like the critiques of weapon systems to be more enlightened and more objective than he believes those outside of the Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole have been in the past.
He is moving to set the stage for this.
In General Welch’s mind, critics have been wayward in their harsh judgments of such high-priority Air Force systems as the B-lB bomber, the Peacekeeper ICBM, and the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). He would like to prevent this from happening in the assessments to be expected of equally important Air Force systems now coming to the fore, most notably the B-2 Stealth bomber and the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF).
The first B-2 may be flying by the end of this year. The ATF is well along in development. Because both aircraft will break new ground in several technologies and their integration, they will almost certainly exhibit some flaws that will need correcting as they come of age in the air.
As history has shown, much good can come of this, if only the critics would realize it and not leap to premature conclusions.
Back to the F-15. “Not too many years ago,” says General Welch, “we regarded the useful life of an air-superiority fighter as being five to seven years—and here’s a fighter that’s a lot older than that and is not only still useful but still the finest.”
He attributes this to “our ability to exploit technology during its maturing process. We were able to make its engine better and better—and more reliable—by incrementally introducing new technology.”
He also points out that lessons learned in improving on the engines of the originally operational F-15s helped the Air Force to move ahead with programs for more advanced powerplants and to revitalize competition among fighter engine contractors.
As a result, he says, “Today we have a tremendously healthy situation in engines.”
Defending Against Attacks
General Welch has felt duty-bound to defend the Air Force against attacks on its blue-ribbon programs, but he would rather not be compelled to do so. “I don’t want to spend my time being a critic of the chorus of critics,” he says, adding:
“It’s a very healthy situation when people outside the Air Force discover and call our attention to things that need to be fixed. But in almost every case that I know of, the information used by the chorus of critics has come from some Air Force report.
“So there is usually not much disagreement about the facts. But the critics tend to invent their own sets of consequences, their own views of the military impact of the facts.
“The most visible example of this in recent years is the B-1 program. I can’t remember a program that has attracted so much attention. All the B-1’s problems came to light in Air Force reports of test results and deficiencies that needed to be corrected. The only problem that really warranted extensive attention was in the defensive avionics. The rest of the fixes were straightforward.
“So the issue was not the facts.
They were gleaned from Air Force reports and were not in dispute. But the chorus of critics concluded that the impact of the facts was that the B-1 is not able to do its assigned job.
“The fact is that it is fully capable of doing that job today. It remains essential that rigorous B-1 testing be done, and it is being done and will continue to be done.”
The Chief of Staff describes the controversy generated by Peacekeeper test results as “probably the most graphic example” of what he considers to be outlandish expectations on the part of the missile’s detractors.
“The chorus of critics declared that the accuracy of the missile was in question, because a group of five test shots produced accuracy results that were only ten percent better than the mature specifications called for, whereas an earlier group of test shots had produced accuracy that was twenty percent better.
“Lost in this was the fact that it was the first time in history that initial tests of any ballistic missile anywhere produced accuracy that met the mature specs. So it’s a tremendously positive outcome. The facts are very straightforward.”
There have been suggestions that the Air Force may not be above fudging or concealing facts about its systems in order to make those systems look better. General Welch bridles at this.
“We continue to be very open about the facts,” he declares. “We have to be, because we have to ensure that our development and test programs produce weapon systems that will serve the nation for a long time—typically, twenty-five to thirty years.”
This also means, he says, that the Air Force “can’t afford to respond to the pressures of the critics in any way that would sacrifice the rigors of our development and testing programs, because what we are doing in those programs is trying to ensure that our weapons will do the job in the long term.”
Last year, there were allegations on Capitol Hill that the Air Force had relaxed some requirements in its testing of AMRAAM to make sure that the missile would pass muster in its test scores and be funded for production by Congress.
“We certainly did not,” General Welch asserts. The AMRAAM test program is the most complex, demanding one ever devised for an air-to-air missile. It is coming closer than any other—ever—to covering everything that the missile will have to do in the operational environment. And AMRAAM is doing very well.”
The Chief of Staff acknowledges, however, that conditions were conducive to compromising the AMRAAM test program, because the missile had had a close brush with untimely death.
As he explains it: After a series of successful tests, there were two back-to-back failures. For a time after that, every ordinary test of AMRAAM became a political event in Washington, D. C. In fact, it reached the point that a single failure could have threatened the life of the program.
“That’s not a very healthy environment for the test community. Those kinds of situations require our great emphasis on ensuring that the test community doesn’t respond to the transitory clamor of the critics. Instead, the test community must remain firmly focused on the fact that the weapon system will be an important part of our inventory and that the testing must be done right.”
The AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles that AMRAAMs will supplant on fighters are also examples of weapons that were improved following their introduction into the force.
General Welch recalls that the original Sparrows were designed only to shoot down bombers flying straight and level and “did that job very well.” Over time, however, the Sparrows were also called on to hit highly maneuverable fighters flying high and low.
This required “significant upgrades,” says General Welch, and “today, the AIM-7F and the AIM-7M [Sparrows] do reasonably well, particularly considering their original design.”
The Air Force can cite many such object lessons for critics of its systems. All across the board, says General Welch, “programs that by any definition are remarkably successful and that have given us great capabilities had problems at the start.”
For example: “The commanders of the first F-16 wing and the first AWACS wing experienced the same kinds of things that I experienced with the first F-15 wing.”
The Chief of Staff emphasizes that he is not seeking surcease from justifiable criticism and that the Air Force is not going soft on its own systems.
“We are never going to ease the pressure to try to introduce weapon systems in as capable a condition as we can have them,” he declares.
“I don’t want the Air Force to be forever carping at the chorus of critics,” General Welch says, “but I do intend to ensure that we continue to respond appropriately.”
Some Smoldering Issues
It is worth reaffirming here that misgivings about military programs are by no means confined to unenlightened circles outside the defense establishment.
Jaundiced views are quite often expressed by high-level people of impeccable credentials and credibility who wear uniforms or who deal directly with—and solidly support—the military.
Just such people are now spreading the word about some smoldering issues in the fighter-development world that could catch fire before too long.
Those issues have to do with the Air Force’s ATF program, the Navy’s A-12 Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program, and their political interplay.
The central question afoot is this: Will the two services follow through on their mutually expressed willingness to buy and deploy each other’s fighters—the ATF for air superiority and fleet air defense and the A-12 for surface attack—when push finally comes to shove in the next decade
By all accounts, the odds are still in favor of this happening. For example: “I think the Air Force and the Navy can get together,” says Gen. Robert D. Russ, Commander of USAF’s Tactical Air Command. “I’m willing to buy ATAs when they become available and put them into our operational inventory.”
But the odds may be getting longer. In fact, there are others in the know who now predict that the Air Force will not see its way clear to buy the A-12 when the time arrives in the coming decade.
It is no longer a secret at the Pentagon and around Washington that the Air Force takes a dim view of some of the A-12’s performance characteristics.
Nor is the Navy all that sanguine about eventually assimilating the Air Force ATF. It is keeping a close watch on the ATF program. It suspects that the Air Force will not be able to have it both ways with the supremely sophisticated ATF—either the fighter’s cost will have to go up or its capability will have to be compromised.
The Navy holds all but the barest details of the A-12 program close to its vest and says nothing in public about the aircraft’s attributes.
The Air Force has been far more forthcoming about the ATF. It has acknowledged, for example, that the fighter’s price could prove troublesome and that cost-performance trade-offs are constantly being analyzed and made.
USAF has also been relatively open, in a general way, about its aspirations for the ATF’s speed, range, maneuverability, and stealthiness.
In late 1986, the Navy made an eventful move that caused the Air Force to stir uncomfortably. The Navy lowered its original requirements for the subsonic A-12’s top speed and maximum range.
The decision to do this was made by John F Lehman, Jr., who was Secretary of the Navy at the time. His purpose was to restrain the cost of the 450-aircraft A-12 program and to attract all possible aerospace companies to compete for ATA development contracts.
Some companies had told the Navy that they preferred not to take part in the competition. They were not confident that they could profitably develop and build the A-12 to do the things that the Navy wanted it to do and at prices that the Navy seemed willing to pay.
Once the A-12’s performance specifications were eased, those companies pitched in.
The Navy settled for significantly less range and speed than the Air Force (which isn’t crazy about subsonic fighters in the first place) believes the A-12, as a replacement for USAF’s F-111 and F-15E, will need to carry out the deep interdiction missions foreseen for it.
Indeed, the A-12 is said to be shaping up as not a great deal faster or farther-ranging than the venerable A-6 attack aircraft that it is destined to replace aboard aircraft carriers in the 1990s.
This reportedly discomfits a fair number of naval air and surface officers as well.
According to an official who had firsthand knowledge of the Navy’s action with the A-12, it means that the carriers will have to go just about as far toward shore as they ever did” to launch the A-12 and make ready for its return from inshore strikes.
What the A-12 will have going for it, though, is a high degree of stealth. It is best described, says one source, as “a very stealthy A-6.”
The aircraft’s low observables would weigh heavily in its favor. In making the A-12 capable of sneaking up on targets, the stealth properties would likely offset its relative lack of speed.
But once the A-12 has made known its lethal presence in enemy territory, coming home through hostile airspace may be quite another matter, according to A-12 program watchers.
A little extra speed could make all the difference, they say, and this would apply with a vengeance on Air Force long-range sorties amid Soviet interceptors and SAMs.
Meanwhile, there is no lack of speed in the A-12 program itself.
Late last year, the Navy chose McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics to work as a team in building the A-12, which could be flying around the turn of the decade. A Grumman-Northrop-LTV team lost out in the competition.
McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics had been unwilling to enter the competition until the Navy eased the A-12’s performance specs, whereas Grumman and Northrop had been ready to go all along, says a high official close to the program.
The Navy fighter-bomber will be powered by a much-different derivative of the afterburning F404 engine that General Electric produces for the Navy F/A-18. On the A-12, the engine will not have an afterburner—but it will have nozzles that address what is called “the back-end problem” in designing and building low-observable aircraft.
This has to do with cloaking the aircraft against detection by infrared, heat-seeking sensors and by radar. It necessitates masking the heat of the engine exhaust and preventing radar signals from penetrating to and returning from the whirling turbine blades, which are extremely good radar reflectors.
The back-end problem is said to be easier to solve on a subsonic aircraft than it is on a supersonic fighter with afterburners. The nozzles of the latter must be much more resistant to heat, and they require more engineering artistry in their internal shaping.
This problem may be a big one for the Air Force’s ATF.
“The Air Force is working the nozzle problem very hard,” says a well-informed source. “Without specially designed nozzles, the [ATF’s] signature would go way up. This would give it a lot of problems against Mach 5 Soviet SAMs” when it tries to dash home from deep over enemy territory.
The Navy is said to be keeping a weather eye on the ATF’s development fortunes in this regard.
At this writing, the ATF program’s competing contractor teams—Northrop-McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed-Boeing-General Dynamics—are just about ready to begin building their respective prototype aircraft. The competing engine companies—GE and Pratt & Whitney—have been ground-testing their prototype ATF powerplants for some time.
USAF is shooting for initial operational capability of the ATF around 1995 and intends to produce 750 of the fighters at a unit flyaway cost of $35 million, as measured in Fiscal Year ’85 dollars and predicated on a production run of seventy-two ATFs a year. The Air Force has set a weight-ceiling goal of 50,000 pounds for the ATF.
Hardly anyone believes that USAF’s cost and weight limitations on the ATF can be honored. In fact, the Air Force originally believed that the ATF would have to weigh about 55,000 pounds and would cost about $40 million each at a minimum—and those parameters are still “more like it” in terms of realistic expectations, says an official who keeps close tabs on the program.
The Air Force has already reduced the ATF’s combat radius by twenty percent in order to keep its cost in bounds.
Despite whatever misgivings the Navy and the Air Force may have about cross-procuring their two fighters, economic considerations may dictate that they do so for the sake of getting the most out of their ultra-expensive aircraft resources.
It is becoming obvious, however, that the Air Force would still have to spend much additional money to make changes to its liking in the A-12 and that the Navy would have to do the same to convert the ATF to a carrier aircraft, including beefing up the landing gear and the airframe associated with the landing gear—thus adding significant weight.
So the jury is still out on what are described as “very emotional issues” in the whole affair. Meanwhile, both services are doing their best to accommodate one another and are lying low with their concerns.
They realize that the political success of their respective fighter programs depends on their continued public expressions of good faith in both.
One last observation: The Air Force designed its ATF from the beginning as a fighter that can be readily converted to the air-to-ground mission—if it ever comes to that.