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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 the
goal 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
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.
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