If one adjective could describe the military advances on display at AFA’s Aerospace Technology Exposition held September 16-18 in Washington, D. C., it would be “full-spectrum.” This year’s exhibitions covered a broad array of defense technologies and concepts, from Joint Strike Fighter mockups and missile casings to laser tracking systems, militarized laptop computers, and desktop simulators with amazing graphics.
Air Force visitors who thronged the exhibit hail found advanced engines for unmanned aerial vehicles and new electronic warfare systems, computer security booths and ejection seats. One firm touted its rocket engine recycling capabilities.
Exhibitors were eager to discuss their chances in the last big airframe program of the century—the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
In a number of exhibit booths, booming rock music combined with slide shows depicting Third World conflicts and other potential threats served as a backdrop for the presentations of competing contractor teams.
With the US Air Force planning to purchase more than 2,000 JSF aircraft (and other US and foreign military services preparing to buy hundreds more), the program seems certain to determine the shape and composition of the fighter aircraft industry for the next fifty years, ac cording to one JSF team leader, Lockheed Martin.
The Lockheed Martin presentation noted that the company faces a formidable task in adapting one airframe to requirements of the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as Britain’s Royal Navy. The Navy and Air Force use different jet fuels, for instance, and their existing AIM-9 missiles are not interchangeable.
“Commonality numbers range anywhere from seventy-five to ninety-five percent” of the total system, said David Wheaton, vice president and program manager for Lockheed Martin. “I’m seeing all the services work well together,” he added, as they know a joint program is the only way a new tactical aircraft can be made affordable.
Boeing is another team leader in pursuit of the JSF program. Its modular design for the new fighter has a common forebody and a common aftbody and tail, with a single-piece wing structure and a fuselage tailored for such individual needs as greater durability for carrier deck landings.
According to Boeing representatives, the performance characteristics of their Joint Strike Fighter will include a combat radius thirty percent greater than that of current US strike fighters, plus significantly greater acceleration and agility.
Another team vying for the Joint Strike Fighter award is composed of McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and British Aerospace. These firms are pushing their unique-looking design as the JSF variant backed by the most prior fighter experience. Among them, team members have developed the US Navy’s F- 14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet, USAF’s F15 Eagle, and the multinational Tornado.
McDonnell Douglas pointed out that, as the builder of the venerable F-4 Phantom II fighter, it is the only contractor ever to have manufactured a fighter airframe used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Phantom also has been the mainstay of numerous foreign air forces.
Lasers—specifically, the Airborne Laser program—were another highly visible item at this year’s exhibition. With the ABL contract set to be awarded in mid-November, jockeying between Boeing’s team and a Rockwell-led effort seemed intense.
Rockwell’s ABL display included graphics depicting a mock theater missile engagement, complete with a deep, repeating boom signifying a booster kill.
“This will revolutionize air warfare,” insisted Brent Brentnall, Rockwell ABL business development manager. “When I was in the Air Force, you engaged at a half-mile distance with a.50-caliber machine gun. Now, you may engage at hundreds of miles with a beam of light.”
Boeing touted its union with TRW and Lockheed Martin on an Airborne Laser team. Twenty years of technical advances have made such a weapon possible, the firm said.
For instance, recent guidance and control tests have shown conclusively that it is possible to focus and point a laser at a missile hundreds of miles away, despite the bouncing of aircraft and turbulence of air. All that’s needed now is to demonstrate the feasibility of integrating known technology into a single package capable of downing theater ballistic missiles in boost phase, claimed ABL officials.
Theater missile defense will be only the first airborne use of laser weapon technology, Mr. Brentnall predicted. “I don’t think we know yet what we’re going to do with this,” he said.
Technology for spacebased eyes that will likely be necessary to deal with the ballistic missile threat was also on display at the 1996 exhibit. Material available at the Air Force Spacebased Infrared System Program Office display maintained that the SBIR system will be the necessary follow-on to today’s Defense Support Program surveillance satellites. Plans call for an evolutionary transition away from DSP, with new ground equipment in place by 1999 and delivery of SBIR system satellites beginning in 2002.
TRW’s exhibit, meanwhile, promoted the low-level component of the SBIR system architecture, the Space and Missile Tracking System. SMTS satellites would operate in low-Earth orbit, providing continuous observation of ballistic missiles from boost phase to atmospheric reentry. Current plans call for an SMTS satellite constellation comprising twelve to twenty-four spacecraft.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
The Boeing booth featured a large number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs. Boeing supplies the data-exploitation, mission-planning, and communications ground element for the Predator, a medium-altitude UAV that already has seen service over Bosnia-Hercegovina. With Lockheed Martin, it is developing Dark-Star, an advanced, stealthy UAV that will allow theater commanders to stare at battlefields for an extended period.
Earlier this year, the DarkStar program suffered a setback when a prototype crashed on takeoff on what was to be a test flight. However, “we pretty much understand what happened,” said Boeing’s Alex Henschel. “You’re going to end up with a better vehicle because of the experience.”
Raytheon E-Systems, meanwhile, promoted a wide range of electronic communications and intelligence equipment. E-Systems makes the Common Ground Segment equipment that permits communication with and control of DarkStar and Global Hawk UAVs; other products include the Commanders’ Tactical Terminal, the Next-Generation Radio, and a variety of information technology intended to support the modern digital battlefield.
A large part of the McDonnell Douglas exhibit was devoted to the C-17. As Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall noted in her speech to AFA’s Convention, the C-17’s outlook has changed quite a bit over the last year.
Twelve months ago, the airlifter’s political future was cloudy because of cost and development problems. Today its future is bright, thanks to technical improvements and an Air Force order for a full 120-aircraft fleet.
The importance of airlift will only increase in coming years, as permanently forward-deployed forces continue to dwindle. McDonnell Douglas officials made use of this fact by promoting the C- 17’s applicability to real-life deployment problems.
They said it takes sixty-five missions and more than six days to transport a fighter squadron’s support equipment and munitions from Europe to the Middle East via C-130. C- 17s, on the other hand, could move the same load in seventeen missions spanning little more than two days.
Over at the Lockheed Martin area, however, the company was heavily promoting its new C- 1 30J airlifter. The firm said that major system enhancements will dramatically reduce the ownership cost of the J model Hercules. Manpower costs will drop by about forty percent and maintenance man-hours by about fifty percent, compared with previous models.
Lockheed Martin also called attention to F-16 operations over the Balkans. In May 1995, an F-16 from the 555th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Wing, became the first Fighting Falcon to drop a laser-guided bomb in combat. This past September, an F-16 from the 23d Fighter Squadron, 52d Fighter Wing, achieved a similar combat first for the aircraft when it fired an AGM-88 High-Speed Antiradiation Missile to suppress an adversary’s air defense radar in Iraq.
Other firms drew on today’s headlines in support of their products. With the US attack on Iraq still fresh in the minds of visitors, Northrop Grumman provided extensive data detailing how its premier airframe—the B-2 bomber—could be used to attack regional adversaries, such as Iraq, with conventional weapons.
Northrop Grumman officials pointed out that the B-2’s main conventional warheads, 2,000-pound precision guided weapons, cost about $18,000 apiece. An air-launched cruise missile, in contrast, costs about $1 million—and it only carries a 1,000-pound warhead. Thus, a B-2 (which can carry up to sixteen of these weapons) on a deep-strike mission would deliver a load of weapons that cost only $288,000. An equivalent cruise missile strike would cost $32 million. The difference is large enough that each B-2 could pay for itself via munitions savings in just twenty missions, according to Northrop Grumman calculations.
Furthermore, noted company officials, the B-2 with a single refueling can reach any target on Earth from one of three secure bases: Guam, Diego Garcia, or Whiteman AFB, Mo. The conclusion is, according to the company: “B-2s are a cost-effective way to maintain US military power.”
Awareness and Precision
Surveillance and target acquisition systems also were a critical feature of the Northrop Grumman exhibit. The firm is the prime integrator for the E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft, which was finally approved for production this fall after years of arduous development testing, including combat service.
One new focus, according to Northrop, is a system-of-systems approach that would link the E-8 Joint STARS, the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and other surveillance platforms to such precision strike platforms as the B-2.
With precision strike becoming an increasingly important part of USAF strategy, a number of firms displayed developmental precision guided munitions. Lockheed Martin Electronics showed its Wind-Corrected Munition Dispenser, an inexpensive kit intended to turn existing, general-purpose cluster bombs into PGMs. High commonality with the Joint Direct Attack Munition will help reduce the number of parts in the WCMD kit and keep costs down, claimed Lockheed Martin. CMS Defense Systems promoted its Autonomous Freeflight Dispenser System, a boxy glider that can dispense a number of different kinds of sub-munitions as it steers itself toward a target area.
Air Combat Weapons
Numerous full-size missile mockups were also on display. Hughes featured the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and AIM-9X.
Company officials pointed out that the AMRAAM is now a combat-proven weapon, having scored two victories over Iraq and one over Bosnia. Production models of the beyond-visual-range missile are exceeding theal of 1,500 hours mean time between failures. An AMRAAM follow-on, the Future Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (FMRAAM), is under development by Hughes’s UK subsidiary for use by the Eurofighter 2000.
The AIM-9X will be USAF’ s next-generation short-range infrared weapon. Seeker and airframe performance will be greatly enhanced over previous AIM-9 Sidewinders, says Hughes.
The new missile must acquire a head-on target maneuvering at high G and then reach the target swiftly. Current Sidewinder performance may not be good enough to guarantee victory in close-in combat. British Aerospace is offering an upgraded Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile as the AIM-9X solution. One of ASRAAM’s highest-value components, the seeker, is a Hughes product—designed, developed, and produced in the US, points out BAe.
Raytheon offered its own AIM-9X mockup, complete with a “rotate to view” seeker head, which company officials called a breakthrough in seeker technology.
Computers are everywhere at defense expositions. One of the more unusual computer packages offered came from GTE: its Virtual Office/Communications System. The VO/CS is a military office in a box—a 120 MHz+ color laptop, color inkjet printer, high-resolution scanner, and secure voice and fax communication interface mounted in a watertight plastic case. Options include a color digital camera.
Environmental products are also becoming a larger presence in aerospace technology. Thiokol reported that it provided the best value in solid rocket motor demilitarization, using the slogan, “Over Twenty Million Pounds of Propellent Processed.” Peacekeepers, Titan IVs, and Minutemen are among the rockets Thiokol has recycled.
Peter Grier, the Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Arena of Space,” appeared in the September 1996 issue.