The F/A-22 Force Forms Up

April 1, 2004

After 10 years and more than 5,000 flight hours, developmental flight testing of the F/A-22 Raptor is nearly complete. The start of operational testing—one of the last major hurdles before the fighter is certified ready for combat duty—is to begin any day now at Nellis AFB, Nev. The Air Force expects the new fighter to achieve operational status at Langley AFB, Va., on time in December 2005 or maybe even a bit earlier.

Today, about two dozen F/A-22s are supporting flight testing, pilot training, and weapons checks. About 20 more are in final assembly. Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., plant is turning out operationally configured F/A-22s at the rate of nearly two per month.

As soon as the F/A-22’s software is deemed operationally reliable and when initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) has confirmed that the F/A-22 can indeed perform as advertised, production will begin ramping up to a planned peak of 32 per year.

All signs indicate the F/A-22’s progress is accelerating.

Since the program began nearly 20 years ago, it has had its ups and downs, including at least six comprehensive requirement reviews. Each time, the Pentagon concluded that the Raptor is an essential element in the future US military.

Yet Another Study

Despite the outcomes of those reviews and the F/A-22’s imminent deployment, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has directed the Pentagon to carry out yet another requirement study.

OMB has called on the Office of the Secretary of Defense to select an independent contractor to conduct the study. The mission is to determine whether the Raptor is truly a “transformational” system for the US military, is suitable for the types of wars expected in the coming decades, and performs as initially predicted. As part of the same study, the contractor was to scrutinize the Army’s RAH-66 Comanche scout helicopter, but, on Feb. 23, DOD announced cancellation of that program.

This new review follows a Defense Planning Guidance 2002 summer study in which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld not only certified that the F/A-22 is a critical enabling technology for the future, but also declared that the Air Force needs at least 381 of them—about 100 more than now budgeted.

The new OMB-directed assessment specifically bars the Air Force from providing anything other than answers to factual questions—when asked. The service is not to have “other input or interaction” with the contractor.

In its December memo on the study, OMB appeared to display bias against the F/A-22 by asking whether the aircraft is “merely another step in the evolution … of manned fighter technology” and whether it is “still relevant.” OMB requested presentation of a “variety of alternatives” to the F/A-22, highlighting the cost of the aircraft and its “effectiveness in the types of wars that the US is likely to have to fight in the future.”

OMB did not specify a timetable. However, Pentagon officials said they expect completion in August, in time for inclusion in the Fiscal 2006 budget drill. That budget will be unveiled in early 2005.

The new study was launched at a time when the F/A-22 appeared to be on final approach to operational status. Last year, avionics and software problems—as well as a ponderously slow flight-test effort—forced a restructuring of the program. (See “The F/A-22 Gets Back on Track,” March 2003, p. 22.) Those issues, however, are close to being resolved.

There is “very, very little” developmental testing yet to do, said Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. Pearson Jr., commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, Calif., and the designated czar of F/A-22 flight testing.

Pearson told Air Force Magazine, “We have cleared the entire [flight] envelope out to Mach 2 … up to about 60,000 feet” and at nine Gs of maneuvering.

“Virtually Finished”

Clearing the envelope for a fighter with such dramatically new capabilities over any previous machine was “a monstrous job to try to go do,” he said. Now, however, Pearson added, “we are virtually finished with it.”

He noted that the mark of 5,000 flight hours, achieved in late February, was a “momentous” event and indicates the depth of experience USAF now has with the airplane. That figure is on top of “hundreds of thousands of hours” of simulation and computer modeling time, he said.

Remaining tests of the F/A-22’s flight worthiness have to do with the carriage of external fuel tanks—for extended flights to reach overseas theaters of operation—and some other tasks which are not crucial to preparing the airplane for operational test.

“We have sufficient envelope to go do all the operational test and, in fact, take the airplane into combat,” said Pearson. “We have released the envelope that we promised to release prior to OT&E.”

Engineering and manufacturing development of the F/A-22 will be complete “in the summer of ’05, just over a year from now,” Pearson said, adding that the testing yet to be done will be accomplished as needed.

On the whole, he said, “we’re there. We’re dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”

Pearson noted that 2003 turned out to be “a great year,” enabling the center to get “a lot done.”

The year didn’t start out that way. Behind on flights and schedule, the test program needed an overhaul to get back into trim. In January 2003, Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, promised he would get Pearson everything he needed to get testing moving. Jumper proved to be “a man of his word,” Pearson said.

He reported that the F/A-22 test team had aerial refueling aircraft available whenever they were needed. Spare parts, which had been in short supply, were either reclaimed from their use in ground tests of subsystems or bought new to increase the number of airplanes available for envelope expansion flights. The contractor delivered more aircraft.

Lockheed Martin also brought in extra people from subcontractors and other F/A-22 team partners, and “the Air Force stepped up and sent us the people they promised,” Pearson explained.

Last year’s key problem—and the one that kept delaying the go-ahead for full production—was that the F/A-22 avionics and software kept “crashing” in flight. The software problems caused many mission aborts and led critics to suggest the systems were simply too complex to work properly.

Pearson concedes that F/A-22 avionics and software are “extraordinarily complex.” Even so, he said, “We have fixed most of the problems.” He predicted the Raptor would “meet or exceed requirements” for IOT&E.

The Defense Acquisition Board had told the Air Force that the F/A-22 must achieve an average of at least three hours of running time between crashes of the entire software suite. Pilots were having to virtually reboot the aircraft’s computers while in flight, something that put a huge drag on the pace of testing and shook confidence in the system.

However, Maj. Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force’s director of Global Power Programs, said such “Type 1” avionics failures are “not happening anymore.”

In fact, he described the big avionics system crashes—comparable to a desktop computer’s whole operating system going down—as “virtually nonexistent.”

The software will work without such a wholesale failure for upward of 20 hours, at which point the Air Force simply stops testing. Operational missions are not expected to last more than 20 hours.

When the whole system showed such marked improvement, Welsh said, the DAB and the Air Force set “a much more stringent” benchmark: Get the software to run for at least five hours without any “mission critical” piece of it going down.

“The DAB directed the program to use a more comprehensive metric that counts any software and any hardware avionics instability event that has an operational impact,” explained Welsh. That impact is determined “by the operational test pilots, not the software engineers.”

In early March, Welsh asserted, “We’re close,” but acknowledged that the five-hour standard had not yet been met.

He said, “We have about two hours to go and anticipate exceeding the five-hour mark over the next couple of software updates.”

Plans called for making those updates before the end of March.

“The focus now is on making sure that any system that affects the pilot’s ability to do the operational mission—whether it’s hardware or software—works consistently well,” said Welsh.

Achieving the five-hour benchmark will clear the way for start of IOT&E and for full production.

Pearson noted that the flight-test program had been scrubbed of unnecessary testing of conditions outside the aircraft’s combat parameters. For example, he said, no flight tests of close formation will be done at supersonic speeds, because the airplane will never be asked to do that in operational service. “We wouldn’t waste time or money to test that,” he said.

He also pointed out that the F/A-22 avionics system is not being coddled. “We try to induce failures,” he said. “We’re very hard on it.”

Extraordinarily High Bar

The new measure of avionics reliability should be a huge confidence-builder, according to Pearson, who said, “We have raised the bar extraordinarily high for this weapon system, and we’re going to meet it.”

He noted that, a couple of years ago, some thought the Air Force would never solve the avionics problems. “I think we have … learned it can be done,” said Pearson. “Very complex, highly technical electronic systems can be developed and integrated on fighter airplanes.”

Pearson said the F/A-22 is hitting its marks in the four areas where it is expected to be a world-beater: stealth, maneuverability, speed, and sensor fusion.

“We are meeting or exceeding the stealthy characteristics required for this airplane,” said Pearson. The specialized coatings and leading edges that give the Raptor the ability to evade radar detection were designed to be maintained out in the open, like any other combat aircraft, and in any conditions.

The F/A-22 has been tested to high angles of attack, at sustained nine-G turns, and has turned in a staggering performance in acceleration and speed. It will easily outmaneuver any other airplane in the world, Pearson said. Thanks to its stealth, it likely won’t have to.

At Edwards and Nellis, operational tests this year will pit the F/A-22 against F-15Cs in a variety of scenarios. Because its initial operational mission will be air superiority, the scenarios will emphasize such missions.

Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center operators will “conduct counterair missions—actual flights against other aircraft,” Welsh explained. “They will conduct comparison missions, where they’ll … compare [the F/A-22’s performance] with the performance of the F-15C.”

One test will feature four F/A-22s escorting four strike aircraft against a target defended by surface-to-air missiles and eight adversary F-15Cs. The Raptors will have to shoot down all the F-15s while ensuring the strike aircraft reach the target.

Other test missions will have F/A-22s defending high-value airborne assets, such as E-3 AWACS battle management aircraft or E-8 Joint STARS surveillance aircraft, from attacking adversaries, either F-15s or F-16s.

The Air Force will also evaluate its ability to move an F/A-22 squadron, with all its personnel and equipment, to a forward operating location using no more than a prescribed number of airlifter flights. The original requirement called for eight C-141 loads, but, since the service has retired most of its C-141s, USAF changed the metric to about six C-17 loads.

Welsh said, “We can meet that.”

The IOT&E program is expected to take 30 to 31 weeks, said Welsh, so there’s plenty of time to conclude the testing and get Raptors deployed on the ramp at Langley before December 2005.

Col. Larry Wells, who is F/A-22 requirements director at Langley, said the service had not yet determined how many aircraft will constitute the first operational F/A-22 squadron. The reason, he said, is that no one knows the exact effectiveness of the F/A-22, compared to an F-15. Wells said, “There will not necessarily be a one-for-one replacement.”

USAF will settle on the exact number in mid-2005, but Wells forecast a typical squadron-size range of 18 to 24 airplanes.

“For a long time, Langley will be a composite wing of F-15s and F/A-22s,” he said.

What Pearson called “cleanup” flight tests continue at Edwards. Raptors also are assigned to Nellis, in preparation for IOT&E tests there, and at Tyndall AFB, Fla., for training of instructor pilots. The Tyndall aircraft are production-configuration systems, which means they have all the software necessary to conduct actual combat missions.

Pearson said the Nellis pilots who will perform operational tests are not test pilots but Air Combat Command operational fighter pilots.

Since last October, the Raptor has been undergoing what has been called IOT&E “Phase 1.” In this phase, both pilots and blue-suit maintainers are learning their way around the airplane. Pearson said he expects this extra pretest work will help smooth out the formal, flying portion of IOT&E.

“You wouldn’t want to send somebody out to drive in the Indy 500 without going around the track a few times,” he observed.

Maintainers are learning how to diagnose aircraft problems and generate sorties. The Phase 1 flights are also helping verify that previous flight testing provided reliable data—“making sure the airframe is what we say it is,” Pearson said.

The last decade of flight testing turned up remarkably few problems in the F/A-22 design, thanks in large part to the predictive models developed by Lockheed Martin. “We’ve not had any fundamental flaws in the design,” Pearson said. A tail buffet issue required strengthening the vertical fin, a fix that was applied “so it wouldn’t break 10 or 15 years from now,” he said. Moreover, a computer model did not predict that, at certain altitudes, airframe internal pressure would cause slight opening of a landing gear door.

“Nothing dangerous,” Pearson said. “This is what you do … flight testing to find out.”

One expected problem area was the in-flight operation of the weapons bays. That turned out to be no trouble at all. The bays must open at all speeds and withstand strong aerodynamic and acoustic forces. Because of that harsh environment, Lockheed Martin kept “critical things” out of the weapons bays, said Pearson, He added, “That’s really been one of the success stories.”

The Buy Dilemma

USAF’s biggest challenge now will be acquiring sufficient numbers of the F/A-22.

The Air Force’s number, endorsed by Rumsfeld in the 2002 DPG study, is 381. A fleet of that size would support allocation of one Raptor squadron per air and space expeditionary force (AEF) and would provide attrition reserve, test fleet and training aircraft, and backup aircraft inventories, said Welsh. The Air Force maintains 10 standing AEFs.

“Nothing’s changed from the requirement that … evolved from that study,” Welsh noted.

When USAF restructured the F/A-22 program late in 2003, however, the service acknowledged that 277 airplanes may be all it can buy within the program’s $43 billion production cost limits. That was DOD’s estimate.

Pentagon officials had earlier agreed that, if the Air Force could get the cost of the airplanes down, it could use any savings to buy more F/A-22s. Unfortunately, Congress did not go along with this “buy to budget” plan and took back the savings the Air Force expected to use this year to buy an extra Raptor—making it 22 instead of 21.

Capitol Hill staffers said the move was motivated primarily by a desire to restrain purchases until the Air Force completes operational testing. Welsh said the Air Force will simply try to persuade Congress that the Raptor program is on track and performing well.

He contended that the airplane will “sell itself,” once it shows what value it offers.

Welsh said the service can still ask to buy more aircraft if it can show Congress that the F/A-22 “can do what we say it can do,” it is being produced on a “consistent and predictable schedule,” the cost is stable, and there is a chance for cost decreases, based on production improvements and efficiencies.

Finding savings is getting harder, however. The Air Force has invested some $600 million in F/A-22 production line improvements. Initially, the savings-to-investment ratio was projected at 18-to-1, but it is now closer to 9-to-1, Welsh said. One reason for the downward revision: The production rate has been held below maximum efficiency.

Nevertheless, Welsh said, Hill staffers confirmed that, if the Air Force stabilizes the program’s performance and schedule and brings down the cost, lawmakers would be willing to talk about expanding the buy.

Some analysts speculated that the turmoil over the F/A-22 quantities would lead subcontractors and vendors to bail out of the program or raise their prices for fear of a big cutback or cancellation. Welsh said that hasn’t happened. “In my opinion, supplier confidence is increasing, not decreasing,” he said, and this has helped keep down costs.

Welsh thinks this is an exciting time for the F/A-22 program.

“We are seeing the [fighter’s] capability demonstrated every day,” said Welsh. “If you talk to the pilots who fly the airplane, they’ll tell you it can do everything it’s advertised to do. Now, we have to do it consistently, and we have to prove … that we are, no kidding, providing a capability the nation needs. And everyone who works in this program is now focused on that.”

Welsh added that, by the time IOT&E is completed, “nobody will be required to speculate anymore about whether it in fact provides the capability it promised. … There won’t be any doubt.”