The Air Force is fast approaching the acid test for its highly touted, advanced aeronautical technologies.
It has just begun evaluating the first hard evidence from the aerospace industry to determine whether its use of those technologies will indeed enable it, as it claims, to build a next-generation fighter of brilliant performance at a bargain price.
The blue-chip Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program is the case in point. The proving ground is Air Force Systems Command's Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
The stakes for USAF and the nation are huge.
By the mid-1990s at the very latest, USAF will direly need a new air-superiority fighter capable of clearly overmatching the superb Soviet fighters expected to be operating in abundant numbers by then.
The new US fighter, the ATF, will have to fly and fight far better—not just marginally better—than the F-15, yet cost scarcely more than the F-15 in proportion to the ATF's far greater capability.
The ATF must be affordable., because if it isn't, despite the high promise of its performance, it will never come to pass. Today's definition of an affordable price for a new fighter, at a time of increasing pressure against defense spending, is a lot tighter than yesterday's.
This is why USAF felt compelled to set its price goal for the ATF very low—even shockingly low. It put the seven competing contractors in the ATF program on their mettle to come up with proposals for a fighter that will do all the wonderful things USAF wants it to do at a production flyaway cost not to exceed $35 million (in Fiscal Year 1985 dollars), assuming production of 750 ATFs at a rate of seventy-two per year.
USAF also pegged the ATF's maximum gross takeoff weight when fully loaded for the air-superiority mission at 50,000 pounds—considerably less than the 68,000 pounds of the F-15C.
Just last month, the ATF contractors—Boeing, General Dynamics, Grumman, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, and Rockwell International—were to have submitted their technical, cost, and pricing proposals for ATF development, production, and maintenance.
The Cost/Capability Conundrum
Now it will be up to ASD and its ATF contractors to demonstrate that high technology and reasonable costs are not, ipso facto, antithetical, as is popularly assumed. ASD must prove the validity of its claim that the latest and best technologies of digital avionics, propulsion, materials, and manufacturing, for example, can be combined to build, operate, and sustain a marvelous fighter far more efficiently, reliably, and inexpensively per pound than ever before.
"We face big challenges in the matter of ATF operational effectiveness vs. cost," acknowledges Lt. Gen. Thomas H. McMullen, ASD's Commander. "With all the technology we're pushing for in the ATF, one of the challenges will be to determine what the cost of the performance will actually be.
"Our statement of needs on the ATF is the most detailed of any I've ever seen," General McMullen says, "so we believe we have a good basis for making our determinations. We'll be focusing on what the Air Force requires of the fighter. If this doesn't match up with the unit cost goal, we'll have the contractors go to work on tradeoffs."
Some Air Force officials gravely doubt that the ATF cost and performance goals can ever be made compatible. They fear that if USAF is forced to raise its cost ceiling in order to accommodate performance, the ATF program may become a bloody battleground for future budgetary brouhahas. They also fear that if USAF compromises on its ATF performance requirements in order to accommodate costs, the fighter may not be able to hack its demanding missions.
General McMullen refuses to borrow trouble on either count. "We're in for some hard work on the ATF program, but in no way do I feel pessimistic about the outcome," the ASD Commander declares.
ASD's track record in upgrading weapon systems with newly available advanced technologies has been solid enough to justify General McMullen's upbeat approach to the problem of reconciling ATF cost and performance requirements.
A prime example is ASD's success at modernizing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, an evolutionary process of preplanned product improvement (P3I) that may be more difficult in many ways than building a new fighter with new technologies thoroughly integrated on the drawing boards.
Plenty of Success Stories
Belying conventional criticisms of US military R&D and procurement programs, ASD has earned many more high grades than low ones for its management of hundreds of programs representing well over half of USAF's total R&D and procurement budget.
Along with its fighter-upgrade programs, ASD can also cite the electronically rejuvenated B-52 bombers, the B- lB bombers now in production, the air-launched cruise missiles and rotary launchers common to both bombers, the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) that General McMullen says is "going very well" in development, and many other programs that exemplify its increasingly sure-handed touch with new aeronautical technologies and techniques.
Against all odds, ASD now seems to have come out of the woods in its development of the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system. LANTIRN, consisting of technologically complex navigation and targeting pods and a head-up display (HUD), will make it possible for tactical aircraft to attack targets at night and under the weather in a profound enhancement of capability.
The Imaging Infrared (IR) Maverick, a launch-and-leave missile brought to maturity by ASD, has come through recent testing in fine shape. IR Mavericks are being deployed right now with USAF A-10s at RAF Bentwaters in the United Kingdom, presaging their proliferation in attack fighter units and the great improvement of those units' standoff precision firepower.
Eventually, LANTIRN and the IR Mavericks will join up aboard a wide array of USAF attack aircraft, thanks to ASD.
ASD's management of the C-5B, C-17, and MC-130H Combat Talon upgrade programs also marks its proficiency with major systems, to say nothing of its proficiency with technology programs increasingly tailored for the quickest possible application to such systems.
However, the toughest test of ASD's prowess lies ahead in the formidable form of the ATF program. ASD's stewardship of that program over the next few years through the fighter's demonstration/validation (demval) phase and on into full-scale development will decide the makeup and the quality of USAF's tactical fighter force structure coming up on and well into the twenty-first century.
To the Air Force, almost nothing is more important than that tactical force structure.
The affordability problem arises at a time when dismal budget outlooks have already hurt USAF It had a great deal to do with putting the new T-46 trainer on hold and has caused two other significant changes as well.
The Air Force canceled its plan for the F- I 6F swing-role fighter that it had intended to devote primarily to the interdiction mission. It has put its two F-I6XL experimental fighters, forerunners of the F-16F that featured slightly elongated fuselages and cranked-arrow wings, into "flyable storage," a euphemism for retirement.
The Air Force has also shelved for the time being a Johnny-come-lately requirement for a close air support/battlefield air interdiction (CAS/BAI) aircraft to succeed the A-10 in the 1990s. The prevailing sentiment in the Air Force is that the F-16Cs now being delivered to operational units will do the CAS/BAI mission well enough and that F-16Cs destined to be upgraded even more as they come off the production line (with LANTIRN, for example) will do it even better.
The requirement for a follow-on CAS/BAI aircraft, perhaps the F-20 or a reengined and reconfigured A-7 called the Strikefighter, originated at the level of the Secretary of the Air Force early last year. It suffered the disadvantage of only lukewarm advocacy or of outright opposition in most high-level blue-suit circles, even though it caught on at Tactical Air Command (TAC).
The requirement reportedly took Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger by surprise. According to one USAF official, Mr. Weinberger decided that in view of all the other weapons the military would be forced to trade away in the budget crunch, the Air Force should not presume to add a new close air support aircraft to its already endangered list of Weapons priorities.
So USAF stopped working up its RFP for the aircraft, and there the matter lies.
"This is an issue the Air Force will probably continue to agonize over, but for now, it's dead," declares a USAF officer who had been involved.
Munitions, Platforms, and Priorities
Now the Air Force is coming under increased pressure to give somewhat higher priority to developing and deploying wider varieties of air-to-ground standoff precision guided munitions (PGMs) and to back off a bit from its greater concentration on weapons delivery platforms.
Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Dr. Donald A. Hicks, who succeeded Dr. Richard D. DeLauer in that job last year, told AIR FORCE Magazine that he is urging USAF "to make a slight change in its priorities toward more standoff weapons," because "we all have to try to do everything we can to make our aircraft and our pilots survive, to make the attack mission easier.
"It's a matter of balance," Dr. Hicks continued. "We all want to kill the targets in the best way possible and avoid flying over them. The Air Force believes in that too. The only thing we're discussing here is how much [in the way of new standoff weapons]."
Noting his background as a Northrop Corp. executive, with emphasis on R&D, Dr. Hicks declared that "it would be hard for anyone to accuse me of being against airplanes."
However, he also said, "If we can't manage our [pilot and aircraft] losses, we wouldn't have an Air Force very long."
USAF has no basic quarrel with all that. Its leaders believe, however, that its new and future ground-attack aircraft, armed with such standoff weapons as the IR Maverick and the GBU-15 IR guided bomb, will be capable of attacking effectively and of surviving bountifully against present and foreseeable Soviet air and ground defenses.
ASD has developed the navigation, flight-control, fire-control, and other avionics that will make it increasingly possible for USAF attack aircraft to employ evasive tactics en route to ground targets and to expose themselves less and less to enemy fire.
Much credit for this goes to the experimental work and testing done in the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI) F-16 program, an Air Force-Army-Navy-NASA program managed by ASD at Wright-Patterson.
The AFTI/F-16 program has proven out, in test aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif., an advanced, digital, fly-by-wire flight-control system that ASD's General McMullen says is "opening up new dimensions in aircraft maneuverability."
The AFTI Payoff
This is no pie-in-the-sky project. F-16Cs will be outfitted with flight controls based on the AFTI/F-16 experimentation, and the F-15E dual-role deep-interdiction fighter, now heading for production, will feature a triplex digital flight-control system that owes a lot to AFTI/F-16 experimentation.
Right now, in its Phase II, the AFTI/F-16 program is concentrating heavily on many new means of enabling ground-attack pilots and aircraft to get to and away from their targets unscathed.
A key endeavor here is a digital terrain management and display system. It will enable attack aircraft to find their way to targets in much the same manner that cruise missiles do, courtesy of their covert terrain-following and terrain-avoidance systems, the three-dimensional digitalized terrain maps stored in their flight-management computers, and the cockpit instrumentation and displays that enable the pi lot to take advantage of all of that capability.
The AFTI/F-16 program's work on pilot voice control of some aspects of his increasingly complex flying task is also highly germane to the ground-attack (as well as to the air-combat) mission.
If this work pays off in the form of operational systems, a pilot will be able to determine his fuel status and his airspeed and to call up certain radar information, for example, by vocally querying his sensor-computer-display systems in those regards. He won't have to look down into the cockpit and handle instruments.
With special emphasis on the integration of computerized fire controls and flight controls, the AFTI/F-16 program is geared mainly to designing the pilot into the cockpit, and not out of it, even while proceeding toward ASD's goal of virtually automating USAF's high-performance aircraft.
The keys to this are advanced sensors, digital data and signal processors, multiplex distribution of their outputs, and increasingly sophisticated software.
"What we are addressing," says Lt. Col. Donald Ross, ASD's AFTI/F-16 program manager, "are the pilots' increasingly heavy workloads in both the air-to-air and the air-to-ground scenarios.
"In air-to-ground, we are being driven down to lower and lower altitudes and to higher maneuverability in order to survive. Time on target is also being compressed," Colonel Ross says.
In densely defended territory, ground-attack pilots must now prepare to allow themselves a maximum of only about fifteen seconds from the time they put their sensors on their target to the time their weapons are away.
"We need our systems to be able to respond to that, and that's what we're working on," Colonel Ross sums up.
Despite its outstanding success and the demonstrable applicability of its wonder-working wares to current USAF fighters, the AFTI/F-16 program has been victimized by the defense budget crunch. New work scheduled to begin in the current fiscal year went unfunded, and the future looks iffy.
More Punch for Squadrons
The future is brightening, however for USAF's operational tactical squadrons.
There are three big reasons for this: the successful testing and the operational debut, this month, of the IR Maverick standoff missile; the infusion into the force structure of F-16Cs and Ds, which will be continually upgraded in coming production lots; and the flowering of the F-15E dual-role fighter now scheduled to take to the air near the end of this year.
The IR Maverick had its problems. Its designer, Hughes, made a number of engineering changes to its guidance and control section. Now it is not only much more reliable but also performs much better.
A major problem was the wiring in its eleven tiny, custom-built, hybrid circuit devices. Hughes and ASD redesigned those devices, made them simpler and less labor-intensive to build, and cut their number to seven.
As a result, the IR Maverick's reliability is now so high that its mean time between maintenance actions is twice as long as ASD had required for its production and its initial operational capability.
Last September and October, in twenty-three live test launches at Nellis AFB, Nev., IR Mavericks scored twenty-two direct hits on a variety of vehicles. Subsequent captive-carry, target-acquisition tests over Wisconsin with production missiles were also very successful.
Eleven of the hits were made from F-16, A-7, F-4E, F-4G, and A-10 aircraft in test launches conducted by the Air Force Tactical Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis. Another eleven hits (out of twelve launches) were made by IR Mavericks from A-10s in a test series conducted by the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center headquartered at Kirtland AFB, N. M.
ASD was well satisfied. Col. Robert S. F Jennings, its IR Maverick (AGM-65D) program manager, says the tests showed the missile to be "a highly reliable and effective air-to-ground weapon" that "will add a significant new dimension to the capability of our tactical air forces."
Much more capable than its TV‑guided predecessor now in operation, the IR Maverick has a built-in "G bias" that enables it, when launched down very low, to climb for a better view of its target, a precise lock-on, and better range.
This means, says Colonel Jennings, that the launching aircraft, as at Nellis, "can hug the desert floor" while launching the missile and-can then immediately leave the target area.
At first, the A- 10 pilots in particular had some misgivings about all this. They are trained to eyeball what they're shooting at. They felt uneasy about dispatching a missile toward a target many miles away (the IR Maverick's range is classified) that showed up only as a spot on their scopes.
The A-10 pilots soon became enthusiastic, however, once they realized that the IR Maverick gives them much greater flexibility in developing tactics to confuse the enemy and in using the terrain to screen their aircraft as they launch and leave.
USAF's A-10s at RAF Bent-waters, UK, are now being armed with IR Mavericks. The first squadron is scheduled to be fully operational next month.
More than 250 IR Mavericks were scheduled for production by the first of this year, and more than 1,000 are expected by next June 1. USAF has designated Raytheon as second source for IR Maverick production and plans to procure 60,644 of the missiles.
It bought less than half as many of the TV-guided Mavericks (AGM-65A and B models), which are now deployed worldwide with US and allied air forces. There is a lot of commonality between the TV and IR variants, but the latter is "a much better and better-built missile," Colonel Jennings says.
F-16C/D Deploying Overseas
F-16C fighters and dual-seat F-16D trainer variants now have their overseas deployment orders. They will begin replacing air-to-ground F-4s at Ramstein AB, West Germany, this month. They will supplant F-l6As and dual-seat Bs at Hahn AB, West Germany, next June. By then, they will have been deployed with squadrons in Korea as well.
Just as the F-16Cs and Ds embody improvements over the lighter, less sophisticated As and Bs, mostly in avionics, so will future Cs and Ds be much different and much more versatile fighters than Cs and Ds now coming off the line. ASD has an elaborate schedule for building a host of new systems into production F-16Cs and Ds incrementally through the first quarter of 1989.
"The February 1989 airplane will be as different from the December 1988 airplane as that one will be from those in production today," explains Maj. Gen. Ronald W. Yates, ASD's F-16 program director.
The Multi-Stage Improvement Program (MSIP III) for F-16Cs and Ds is aimed at incorporating new systems into production fighters as the systems become ready. They include a new inertial navigation system, wiring for LANTIRN, the IR Maverick, and the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), a new gear box, a new HUD, the combined ALR-69 radar, a new identification, friend or foe (IFF) system, terminals and displays for the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellites, the Airborne Self-Protection Jammer (ASPJ), the Precision Location Strike System (PLSS), and the General Electric F110 engine.
That engine has begun sharing production in F-16Cs and Ds with Pratt & Whitney's F100-PW-220 engines. Both powerplants greatly improve on the P&W F100 engines aboard the F-16As and Bs.
The F-16Cs and Ds to be introduced at Hahn AB, West Germany, will be powered by the GE engines.
Over the years, F-16Cs and Ds embodying the new systems will replace in operational units the older Cs and Ds that don't have those systems. They, in turn, will be assigned to Guard and Reserve outfits, just as As and Bs are now being assigned. Some will be retrofitted with new systems.
Not all the F-16Cs and Ds in future production will contain each and every new system yet to come, however. The new systems built into each new fighter will depend on the unit and the mission for which that fighter is destined.
For example, there will be 250 LANTIRN F-16Cs. Their production will begin only when the full-up LANTIRN system—targeting pod, navigation pod, and HUD—is itself ready for production, probably in 1988.
Once the LANTIRN F-l6Cs have come through production, successor F- 16s will be produced without LANTIRN aboard.
Making the F-16 MSIP HI program come out just right by factoring new systems into the production of F-I 6Cs and Ds and then out again presents "a monumental management challenge," says General Yates.
Many of those systems are shaping up as "multibillion dollar programs in and of themselves" involving "new computers and new software" and are, taken altogether, "far bigger than what we started working with on the original F-16s," the General adds.
Advanced microelectronics and software technologies are the keys to many of the subsystem improvements slated sequentially for the F-I6Cs and Ds.
ASD recently chose Westinghouse, which builds the fighters' Programmable Signal Processor (PSP), to design, build, and demonstrate a new PSP incorporating very-high-speed integrated circuits (VHSICs) for lighter weight, less bulk, greater reliability, and swifter processing.
The F-16C and D PSPs, the brains of the fighters' APG-69 fire-control radars, will thus be among the first US military systems to embody VHSIC technology.
VHSIC technology will also be incorporated in the Integrated Communications, Navigation, and Identification Avionics (ICNIA) system that ASD is developing for the ATF.
That development program will have its operational uses well before the ATF comes into being, however, and is one of ASD's bright hopes for cutting fighter costs even while utilizing advanced technologies.
"We're looking at a mini-ICNIA, without all the waveforms of the full system, that we hope to put on F-16s—probably F-15s too—as a predecessor to the full system on the ATF," General McMullen explains. "ICNIA is going to help us make big progress in terms of a cheaper, more operable, and more reliable set of avionics systems."
F-15E With LANTIRN, AMRAAM
Meanwhile, USAF recently decided that the F-15E dual-role fighter will supplant the F-16C as the first to be outfitted with LANTIRN and the AMRAAM missile in tactical units.
Both LANTIRN and AMRAAM were originally destined for IOCs aboard F-16s in order to enhance the fighters' capability in their primary ground-attack mission and in order to give them much more punch in the air-combat regime than they now have with their short-range IR missiles.
The F- 15E did not exist when that decision was made, however. Now that the F-15E is fast approaching production, USAF believes that it has first claim on LANTIRN and AMRAAM because its highly demanding dual-role requirements present the greatest immediate need for them.
F-15Es will go operational with LANTIRN about a year before F-I6Cs do. USAF is ordering its first eight F-15Es in the current fiscal year and plans to buy 392 of them—enough for four operational wings and one training wing—into the early 1990s.
A two-seater, the F-15E will weigh 81,000 pounds fully loaded, compared to the 68,000 pounds of the F-15C. The increase in the F-15E's structural weight will account for only about 2,000 pounds of the total increase. The remainder will be due mostly to the dual-role fighter's vastly increased weapons carriage and fuel capabilities.
Among other major changes in the F-15E are its increased G capability, its highly advanced cockpits, its ten percent greater reliability, its longer range, and its triple-redundant, digital flight-control system.
"The F-15E is going to have the longest, lowest, toughest tactical interdiction mission in the Air Force," asserts Col. Michael J. Butchko, ASD's F-15 program director. "It is going to be just a superb weapon system."
Given its demanding mission (each F-15E will go it alone, not in formation), the dual-role fighter also will require the latest and best in electronic countermeasures gear. ASD officials are convinced that its new Tactical Electronic3 Warfare System (TEWS) will give it just that.
Just like all digital systems aboard the F-l5E, the TEWS will be programmable in accordance with missions and threats as they come. In fact, the F-15E will be nearly as "software intensive" as the B-IB bomber, and the work load of its two crew members will be almost as heavy, in many instances, as that of the four crew members aboard the B-IB.
In designing the F-15E, ASD, TAC, and McDonnell Douglas set out to make things as easy as possible for its pilot and its backseater. Those two crew members will be able to call up all the flying and fighting information they need from their sensors and computers for viewing on the HUD and on the color and monochromatic display screens—three in front, four in back—directly in front of them.
Only the frontseater will be able to fire the aircraft's air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. The backseater will run the radar acquiring the targets. On all displays, each will be able to see what the other sees.
Like the F-16s, the F-15E must be able to accommodate either the GE F1 10 engine or the P&W FlOOPW-220 engine. This is no problem for the F-16, but it means that the engine bay of the F-15E must be a little larger than the bays of F-15 forerunner variants. The GE engine is about one inch too large in diameter for the original F- 15 engine bay.
McDonnell Douglas is thus rebuilding the aft fuselage of the F-15E with a light, strong titanium structure that actually cuts the cost of that section by a quarter of a million dollars per airplane.
Toward ATF Demval
This is exactly the kind of cost saving that ASD wants to bring about through the use of advanced materials on the Advanced Tactical Fighter. Given the low cost goal now set for the ATF, such savings will be crucial.
Later this year, ASD will select three or perhaps four of the seven competing ATF contractors to carry the program through the concept demonstration/validation stage. One of them, or a team of them, will be chosen to begin full-scale development of the fighter, aiming at first flight in 1991.
The ATF will have to be capable of cruising at supersonic speeds without using its afterburner, turning on a dime, attaining unsurpassed range with internal fuel only, showing extremely low radar and IR signatures, and taking off and landing on very short, very narrow air strips just in case the strips get torn up along their full lengths and breadths by enemy fire.
All the advances that the companies and ASD have made in technologies for existing fighters and bombers and in the AFTI/F-16 and AFFI/F-111 programs (the latter is testing a variable camber wing that may well apply to the ATF) will be brought to bear in making all such ATF requirements attainable and affordable.
The engines are crucial to this. Both the GE and P&W ATF demonstrator engines "have been very successful so far," says Col. Albert C. Piccirillo, ASD's ATF program manager, "and should be running by the end of next summer."
Those highly advanced engines have been in the demval phase for nearly two years. Their early success is a major reason for Colonel Piccirillo's optimism about reconciling ATF cost and performance goals.
ASD now has every reason to believe that the ATF's engines, with their advanced materials, great improvements in aerodynamics, and sharp reduction in the number of stages, will indeed constitute a breakthrough in balancing performance against costs—most especially in the unprecedented reliability and maintainability that they promise.
Those engines are expected to embody nozzles for reversing and vectoring thrust, capabilities that will be crucial to the fighter's maneuverability and STOL characteristics.
In this regard, an F-15 now being modified by McDonnell Douglas for ASD as a STOL test-bed aircraft is scheduled for first flight in two years. Wind-tunnel tests of a model of that aircraft got under way last October, and results so far are very promising.
"We expect that the technologies [in the test-bed aircraft] will provide STOL capability in the F-IS with no weight penalty to its up-and-away capability," declares David Selegan, ASD's STOL test-bed deputy program manager. "We also believe that those technologies will increase—not penalize—the aircraft's combat capability, and we're expecting a ten percent to thirteen percent increase in its range factor."
The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 19, due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag