The F/A-22, in Fire and Flak

Feb. 1, 2005

After a year in which the F/A-22’s technical and manufacturing problems were fixed, and in which the fighter proved it could perform as advertised, the Defense Department in late December moved to halt the program when it has produced fewer than half the aircraft the Air Force insists the service needs to fulfill its mission.

The cut to USAF’s top priority system was a body blow to the service and the wider US military, which is depending on the stealthy, speedy Raptors to provide the “kick down the door” capability needed to gain access to any well-defended military theater of the future. How it will do that now must be thoroughly rethought.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld directed the Air Force to halt the Raptor program at 180 airplanes—97 fewer than previously approved and budgeted. It is also 201 fewer than the service needs in order to equip all 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces with one squadron each. Production would end in 2008, rather than in 2011 or later, as planned.

The $10.1 billion cut was made before this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review of forces and strategy. No strategic justification for it was offered. The F/A-22 was among a number of defense programs which ran afoul of financial targets set by the Administration.

Accompanying the order to the Air Force was a directive from Paul D. Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy, that the QDR “include an assessment of joint air dominance, the integrated joint capabilities that contribute to it, and the appropriate contributions by all types of tactical aircraft to joint air dominance in future warfare.” Usually, changes in numbers of systems do not precede—but rather follow—a strategy review.

Rumsfeld refused an 11th-hour Air Force request to spare the Raptor and cut some less-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighters instead. The JSF program, however, was untouched, and the Air Force was given leadership over the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program, with instructions to focus on developing aircraft that “contribute to JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council]-approved future joint warfighting concepts of operation.”

Rumsfeld’s cut now leaves the Air Force scrambling to rewrite various concepts of operation, developed over a decade, that made the Raptor the centerpiece of air and space operations in future conflicts. The 180-airplane fleet will support only five small squadrons of F/A-22s—too few to cover the obligations of the service to provide rapid, unquestioned air dominance in any theater of operations.

USAF acknowledged through a spokesman that it would have to do its part to reduce the federal budget deficit, but “our analysis for F/A-22 requirements still stands at 381 aircraft. We expect F/A-22 requirements to be further analyzed during the QDR process.”

In an interview with Bloomberg News, outgoing Air Force Secretary James G. Roche said the cut aircraft “could be restored if we can make the case that requirements justify more than the number that this budget would yield.” He also said the cut came “at the last minute” of the budget process, and there wasn’t much time to discuss whether alternatives could be found. If the deleted aircraft are restored, “then we’ve got to find something else to take away,” he said.

The cut was all the more exasperating because the F/A-22 had just capped an extraordinary run of successes which saw nagging avionics problems resolved, stellar success in operational testing, declining costs, and increasing production rates. The hot streak was marred somewhat by the crash of an F/A-22 on takeoff for a night training mission at Nellis AFB, Nev., also in December. However, the fighter was deemed safe to resume flying in early January, and the Air Force said the crash was not due to a basic design defect. Before that accident, the F/A-22 fleet had racked up 7,000 flying hours without loss of an aircraft, an unprecedented safety record for a new fighter. A safety report identifying the cause of the crash was pending. (See box, “USAF Quickly Returns F/A-22s to Flight,” p. 35.)

Despite the cut, USAF officials are slated to take the F/A-22 before the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) this spring with an impressive story to tell.

•In December, the Air Force concluded F/A-22 initial operational test and evaluation. These five-month trials saw six developmental aircraft fly 188 simulated air combat sorties. In every engagement, the F/A-22 prevailed, usually against superior numbers of adversaries. It met the demanding requirement to be “twice as effective” as the F-15C it will replace.

•The Raptor’s super-sophisticated avionics, once a chronic headache, have been tamed. Pentagon overseers no longer require frequent reports on the state of avionics development.

•The Air Force decided to send two F/A-22s from Tyndall AFB, Fla., to Langley AFB, Va., where pilots and maintainers are preparing for initial operational capability as soon as December 2005. By then, some 17 Raptors will be at Langley’s 27th Fighter Squadron. The first pure Langley-based Raptor arrives in July.

•Impressed with F/A-22 progress last fall, the powerful Defense Acquisition Board set next month for a new and critical review of the program. Defense officials expect the DAB to approve full-rate production at that time.

•In late 2004, initial production of the F/A-22 reached a rate of 18 fighters per year, on its way to planned annual rates of 24 per year in 2005 and 32 per year—the maximum—in 2006.

•Raptor costs are falling. Lockheed Martin, the contractor, expects the next few production lots will get the F/A-22 unit flyaway cost under $100 million (in 2005 dollars). That would mark a 25 percent decrease off today’s $133 million sticker price.

•In its Fiscal 2005 defense bills, Congress without much hesitation voted to authorize and fund the Air Force’s full Raptor request for 24 new Raptors.

Amid all of these mounting accomplishments, the Air Force believed it could credibly ask Congress to lift spending caps on the program, possibly as early as this spring. The caps were put in place to force the program into better cost and schedule performance, goals which the Air Force believes have now been met.

While lifting the caps may have been a tough sell on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon’s proposed cuts may be equally hard for Rumsfeld to justify in Congress. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), in whose district the F/A-22 is assembled, promised that the cuts would not stand and vowed a spirited fight against them. So did Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose state expects to see the F/A-22 based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, in Anchorage, Alaska.

However the final buy issue is settled, the F/A-22 program has shifted from a developmental to an operational mind-set.

Warriors in the Lead

Maj. Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, USAF’s director of global power programs, declared in December: “The focus inside the Air Force has clearly shifted from developing this airplane … [to] fielding the capability.”

No longer are acquisition and engineering specialists at the fore. “Our warfighters are now leading this effort,” said Welsh.

According to Welsh, the progress at Langley is visible.

“Buildings are going up,” he said. “They’re talking about how they’re going to use their simulators; they’re getting their first squadron commander through training. It’s happening.”

The F/A-22, Welsh continued, is no longer “a PowerPoint slide somewhere. This is taking place.”

Moreover, Welsh contended, there is no reason to doubt that enough F/A-22s will be on hand at the end of the year to begin real operations. “We are planning to have on the ramp [at Langley] … 12 to 18 [Raptors],” he reported.

The head of Air Combat Command will establish criteria for what constitutes IOC, he added. Tactics for the F/A-22 are being written by the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, “so the guys at Langley have it before IOC,” Welsh said.

The F/A-22 will be the world’s first fighter that can maintain extreme stealthiness even while maneuvering hard. It can fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburners, it can engage the enemy while still undetected, and it has an avionics suite that integrates disparate sensor data into a display pilots can use to maximize the aircraft’s position and capabilities.

Pilots in IOT&E—most drawn from the F-15C community—raved about its being a huge leap over the time-tested Eagle.

At this time last year, though, program managers were struggling to overcome avionics problems that were slowing the pace of testing and had critics calling for the program to be slowed or stopped.

“What a difference a year makes,” said Ralph D. Heath, formerly Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the F/A-22 and now the corporation’s executive vice president. The change between the state of the program then and now is, in his words, “dramatic.”

A year ago, the F/A-22 was making headlines for its inability to fly very long without its onboard computer operating system crashing. Pentagon leaders demanded that the aircraft demonstrate an ability to fly an average of three hours—and then five—without a computer problem, which was dubbed “avionics instability.”

Those problems are ancient history, Heath asserted in a December interview with Air Force Magazine.

The avionics problem was settled last spring. Mean time between failures of the avionics quickly rose above three hours, then above five, then beyond 10, and is now “between 10 and 20” hours, Heath reported. This is the case, even though the measuring criteria has became more stringent.

According to Heath, the Pentagon acting acquisition chief, Michael W. Wynne, has remarked that F/A-22 avionics are “not an issue anymore.” Heath paraphrased Wynne as saying, “I’m satisfied that you’ve solved the avionics issues and that’s no longer a metric that needs to be tracked.”

Avionics stability is still measured, but is no longer a pacing factor in getting aircraft built and delivered.

Zero Discrepancies

Heath noted that the two F/A-22s delivered to Tyndall in November had “zero discrepancies,” meaning acceptance inspectors found no defects, problems, or faults in the aircraft or its operating systems. Such an event is noteworthy enough in a mature weapon system; in a new platform, it is extremely rare.

“Literally,” Heath said, “the same day they received the jets, they took ’em and flew a mission.”

Meanwhile, the Raptor starred in the IOT&E phase.

Talking with a Bloomberg News reporter last fall, Thomas P. Christie, the Pentagon’s weapons test chief, claimed that the Raptor “has shown itself to be an outstanding air-to-air aircraft.” Christie told the news service that the Raptor demonstrated the stealth, maintainability, and combat effectiveness “that we have paid for.”

In these combat-like evaluations, Raptors deftly cleared the skies of adversaries flying F-15s and F-16s. Christie described these air-to-air tangles as “some of the most combat-oriented sorties I’ve ever seen the Air Force fly in an operational test.” The F/A-22 demonstrated that “it’s a better machine for these specific missions” than the F-15C, he added.

The IOT&E examined the F/A-22 as an air-to-air dogfighter, not as a ground-attack aircraft, although even the initial Raptor models will have the ability to employ satellite guided bombs.

Additional ground-attack capabilities will be added during later lots of production, in developmental spirals. Testing will continue as new munitions are integrated with the platform. (See “Washington Watch: F/A-22 Sweeps Tests,” October 2004, p. 10.)

By early December, Lockheed had built 42 F/A-22s and had officially delivered 31 of these. The term “delivered” means they had met all of the technical requirements of the lot in which they were built. Almost a dozen more were in postproduction modification and checkout at year’s end.

Through Lot 4—the 2004 buy—USAF had contracted for 83 F/A-22s, a figure that includes nine developmental aircraft.

The cost of each F/A-22 has fallen 10 to 14 percent with each lot purchased, Heath reported. Those savings have come from a broad variety of initiatives—some funded by the Air Force and some by Lockheed Martin and its suppliers—that range from mundane to dramatic production changes.

The $130 million flyaway cost quoted by the Air Force for Lot 4 covers the airplane, engines, and associated equipment. It does not, however, include development costs, which create a program unit cost of $256 million. That, however, includes a sunk cost which does not recur in later lots. Thanks to the learning curve and process improvements, the Lot 6 airplanes are expected to come in for “under $100 million” in an apples-to-apples comparison with the $130 million fighters, according to Heath.

Big Payoff

The Air Force spent $626 million on streamlining Raptor production processes, a figure that was expected to yield a 9-to-1 return on investment in savings over a 277-aircraft production run. If the buy is halted at 180 aircraft, the return will be much smaller, as the savings would have had their greatest impact later in the run.

One area of improvement has been in maintaining the outer mold line, a critical factor in keeping the aircraft stealthy. A variance of a human hair’s thickness in a joint or seam could cause the aircraft to bloom on enemy radar.

This kind of problem is manageable in a small production run, when aircraft are hand built, Heath said. It was the case, for instance, with the F-117 stealth fighter, only about 60 of which were ever built.

However, with “rate production,” there is no time for craftsman-like attention. F/A-22 pieces must come together right. Yet, even with computer-aided design and manufacturing, variances in the composite surfaces still appeared. Tooling was changed to push variances inward, holding the outer mold line, Heath said.

“It’s one of those things that I was frankly worried about a year ago, and I don’t lose any sleep over it at all,” he said. The F/A-22 has consistently beaten requirements for low observability, he said, noting, “We’re better than spec on every airplane.”

Moreover, the F/A-22 coatings and panel shaping make it possible to service the aircraft on the ramp without sacrificing its stealthy signature, something that has always been a labor-intensive issue with the F-117 and B-2, which need extensive reapplication of stealthy coatings after the surface is pierced for maintenance.

Savings will also flow from borrowing new avionics and software from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also being developed by Lockheed Martin, Heath said. Likewise, the tooling that fixed the mold line variances on the F/A-22 is now an advance that can be applied to the F-35.

By using some common avionics, Heath said, the two aircraft can take advantage of larger production runs and lower unit costs.

The company has a team of cost-cutting engineers looking at every aspect of production for efficiencies. “We are leaving no stone unturned,” Heath said. No suggestion from the factory team is ignored, and even some small ones have paid dividends.

Two years ago, the Air Force established a requirement of 381 Raptors. That was deemed to be a sufficient number to deploy one squadron with each of the Air Forces 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces and have enough left over for training, depot maintenance, testing, and attrition replacements.

Needed: 381 Raptors

The 381 figure “is still what we think is the minimum requirement,” Welsh said, especially given missions demanded by the Strategic Planning Guidance, a secret document that spells out what the services must be capable of doing in wartime.

However, USAF is laboring under two strictures that have capped the amount of money that can be spent on production of the Raptor aircraft. One of these, set by Congress, imposes a cutoff point of $36.8 billion. The other, set by the Pentagon, limits that expenditure to $42.2 billion.

The upshot of the caps is that, so long as they are in place, the Air Force can only afford about 224 to 277 aircraft, depending on which cap one chooses to observe. Both figures are a far cry from the 381 the Air Force views as a minimum.

From the members of Congress, Welsh said, he hears a standard refrain. “Very consistent,” he said. “ ‘Let’s make a production schedule, make it believable, deliver airplanes on time.’ That’s the major push from the committees.”

The Air Force had hoped to make the case for lifting the caps in March, when the F/A-22 is reviewed by the Defense Acquisition Board. If the DAB approves, the F/A-22 will be cleared to enter full-rate production, which will hit 32 per year in 2006.

At that rate, however, the F/A-22 would not have reached 277 airplanes until 2011, and going to the full requirement of 381 would have taken until 2015. That would have seen the program overlap some other big-ticket programs, such as a new tanker, the E-10 flying command post, and the F-35.

Along with the F/A-22 cut, Rumsfeld also proposed trimming the E-10 and halting production of the C-130J tactical transport, eliminating the financial “bow waves” he wants the services to avoid in the out-years of the spending plan.

Congress, too, was concerned about bow waves. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, warned last year that the tactical aircraft program then envisioned—including the JSF and the Navy’s F/A-18E/F SuperHornet—was not affordable and that “something has to give.” Weldon noted, however, that the F/A-22 was finally on the verge of production and that it was hard to believe the DOD would cut it just as the billions spent on its development were about to pay off with series production.

“Intense Scrutiny”

Welsh acknowledged that Congress has “lots of big bills coming up in the years between 2009 and 2015” and that increasing the F/A-22 buy during that period would have exacerbated the problem. However, he maintained, the F/A-22 has been a high-order priority of DOD during Rumsfeld’s tenure, and the Air Force expected that, in tradeoffs with other programs, “the Department of Defense would have to prioritize.”

Heath said there have been many visitors from Congress and the Pentagon to the F/A-22 factory in Marietta, Ga., and they have come away impressed.

“Quite a number—and they are even some who have been skeptics in the past—are now believers,” Heath said. One such was Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who practically derailed the program over its cost in the 1990s. Lewis was among 60 House members who wrote the House leadership last fall to insist that the F/A-22 be funded at the full request for Fiscal 2005.

Another believer is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who took to the Senate floor last May to say, “I have come to the conclusion that the Raptor is absolutely vital to our national security.” Buying an insufficient number of F/A-22s “would be an abdication of our Congressional responsibilities,” Hatch said.

Another looming financing issue for the F/A-22 is its modernization. Although only now being readied for initial operational deployment, the airplane will need block upgrades over time, to increase its power to attack a variety of ground targets, taking advantage of its speed, stealth, and maneuverability.

The first three block upgrades, or spirals, will cost $3.5 billion and are already included in the F/A-22’s program cost, an aide to Welsh explained.

Those spirals—Block 20 and 30 aircraft—will allow the fighter to release satellite guided bombs at supersonic speeds, improve the radar to perform ground-mapping and tracking functions, and improve its data links to other platforms. These improvements will sharply increase its ability to attack ground targets deep behind enemy lines.

Spirals four and five, however, are notional—Welsh called them “candidate lists” of improvements—that will make the F/A-22 a forward node of a network of data collectors. They have yet to be defined, and their costs have not been rigorously estimated, he said.

These “Block 40” aircraft that would incorporate spirals four and five would notionally have better stealth and the ability to conduct some aspects of airborne electronic attack, as well as the ability to attack moving targets.

Making the F/A-22 into a “netcentric” warrior is still conceptual, Welsh said. “Everyone’s brainstorming this right now.” Before the upgrades can be defined, ACC has to develop a concept of operations for the advanced Raptor.

The Government Accountability Office quoted an extra $9 billion as the cost of enhancing the F/A-22 for its ground-attack role, but that figure included the already-counted $3.5 billion for improvements and also made assumptions that are not the case, a Welsh aide reported.

“It assumed that every single capability that we envisioned, we would actually go buy,” he noted. The GAO also assumed “we would retrofit the entire fleet.” However, the first 59 F/A-22 will be kept as trainers and not outfitted with a full ground-attack suite.

“A lot of effort is being made to line these up with better cost estimates so we know what the modernization bill could be, to start the discussion of modernization of these aircraft,” Welsh said.

Although it is not yet clear how well-funded the enhancement of the F/A-22 will be, Pentagon officials said the Air Force will endeavor to keep the airplanes the Air Force does get as capable as possible, hoping to make up in quality what may be missing in terms of quantity.

What is certain, however, is that the Raptor will be a Total Force aircraft. In December, the Air Force announced that the Langley F/A-22 wing will include both active duty and Air National Guard pilots and maintainers, who will be attached to the unit from the Virginia ANG’s 192nd Fighter Wing, based in Richmond.

The move is seen as a way to take advantage of Guardsmen experience while exposing them to a first-line fighter. The Guard has typically operated with hand-me-downs from the active force. That, clearly, is no longer the case.

USAF Quickly Returns F/A-22s to Flight

USAF immediately grounded all F/A-22s while it conducted safety inspections and began an accident investigation board following the Dec. 20 crash of a Raptor shortly after takeoff from Nellis AFB, Nev. By Jan. 6, officials had cleared the Raptors for a return to flight.

While the cause of the crash had not yet been determined, the service said “enough information is available for Air Force officials to be highly confident of the design, testing, and development of the F/A-22.” USAF said it was satisfied the F/A-22 was safe to fly, following “a comprehensive review of procedural and engineering data” and based on the F/A-22 fleet’s 7,000-plus hours of flying time.

Pentagon officials said the safety investigation was close to ruling out engine failure and was zeroing in on preflight procedures.

The pilot, who ejected safely from an altitude of only a few dozen feet, was preparing to depart on a night air combat maneuvering training mission. Both the pilot and aircraft were assigned to Nellis with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, which is developing initial F/A-22 tactics.

The aircraft had arrived at the base in 2002 and had accumulated 150 hours of flying time. It was not configured unusually for the flight. The pilot had logged 60 hours of flying time in the F/A-22, as well as many more hours of simulator time.