The F/A-22 Gets Back on Track

March 1, 2003

The Air Force last December restructured its top-priority F/A-22 fighter program, attempting to stabilize the project after months of contracting, testing, and funding turbulence. The move will slow the pace at which the Raptor will replace the F-15, and it will have significant impact on the size of the overall fighter fleet in the next two decades.

Specifically, the changes could cause a fighter shortage to arrive six years early—in 2011, not 2017, as expected.

That will happen if the Air Force approves a three-year postponement in purchases of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which are now set to begin in 2008. That step is being considered. The service wants to avoid having to buy large quantities of F/A-22s and F-35s at the same time. Delays in F/A-22 production have made this collision inevitable, unless something changes.

Shoving F-35 production forward would also give the Navy and Marine Corps an opportunity to take more of the initial batches.

Whether the Air Force will suffer a fighter shortage, and for how long, isn’t known to a certainty. The service is still calculating how small it responsibly can make the fighter fleet, given the advent of more-sophisticated aircraft armed with smaller yet more-precise munitions.

The increase in effectiveness will push down size of the inventory’s numerical requirement, but the Air Force still needs to maintain an adequate rotational base to fulfill the needs of overseas deployments and requirements for homeland defense, training, maintenance, and test. This will tend to push the numbers back upward.

Final resolution of the matter may not come for years, until the new airplanes see some operational service.

In the restructuring, the Air Force reduced its notional production of F/A-22 Raptors from 339 to 276 airplanes. (This figure is expected to change almost annually for a while.) Plans call for producing a maximum of 36 Raptors per year, though it is not clear when that rate will be achieved.

$43 Billion Pot

Moreover, the production program is to be completed within the current $43 billion budget. Congress imposed that cost cap in an effort to exert fiscal control. USAF senior leadership has pledged not to raid any other programs either to fix or improve the F/A-22 program.

For all that, the Air Force maintains it eventually will acquire all of the F/A-22 fighters it needs and do so with DOD’s blessing. The Raptors now in test are meeting or exceeding key performance requirements, and service officials believe the F/A-22 will become less costly as the production line begins churning out fighters at a steady pace.

“What we want to do is get to a stable [production] rate,” Air Force Secretary James G. Roche told Air Force Magazine. Once production stabilizes at a predictable rate, he said, “that’s when you start going in and honing costs and doing different things” to reduce the unit cost of the airplane.

Plans once called for building the F/A-22 in quantities as great as 56 a year, but achieving that figure would have required a tremendous additional investment in tooling and the hiring and certification of many more workers, Roche said. These factors, he thought, would have added risk, cost, and delay to the program.

Even going to 38 per year required adding night and weekend shifts and significantly increased costs, he said.

“We don’t see the numbers of employees able to go much higher, [and] we don’t see the subcontractors being able to go much higher” than 36 Raptors per year, Roche said. The Secretary said that, when he made this determination, prime contractor Lockheed Martin was relieved.

“They were grateful,” said Roche. “They were in a panic about the 56 [per year] number.”

Roche expects the F/A-22 to recover from its current difficulties. He thinks the forthcoming turnaround could mirror that of the C-17 transport program, which, in the 1990s, went from dire quality and schedule problems and a cost of $400 million per airplane to steady delivery of top-quality aircraft at a unit cost of about $200 million. Planned C-17 production has shot up from 40 to 180 aircraft, with more in store. And, noted Roche, the Raptor’s problems are far less severe than were those of the C-17.

New Requirement: 381 Raptors

The service’s new stated requirement is 381 F/A-22s, a number that would provide one squadron for each of USAF’s 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces (AEFs), plus backup, test, and attrition reserve. A Defense Planning Guidance study conducted by the Pentagon last year agreed with the Air Force that 381 F/A-22s was the right number. The F/A-22’s ability to penetrate modern air defenses and best any projected fighter in combat was touted as a crucial enabling capability for the 21st century US military.

That new figure has not yet received explicit endorsement from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. However, DOD leaders will allow the service quite a bit of latitude on the pacing of production and the freedom to implement management changes to get the program back on track, Roche reported.

Roche also expects that, once the F/A-22 production line stabilizes, unit costs decline, and the aircraft proves itself in service, the new fighter will “sell itself,” and the nation will produce many more than the 339 that the service has been using as a target since the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review.

According to Roche, the F/A-22 also represents “the best chance we have to deal with cruise missiles” in a homeland defense role but did not include cruise missile defense in the calculation leading to 381 airplanes. He wanted to avoid the appearance of “special pleading” and relied instead on the 10–AEF model, which needed no special justification.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was impressed with the case the Air Force made for the F/A-22, Roche reported, but he did not formally adjust the production target. “Everyone agreed that there was no reason to have to make that final decision” just now, Roche said.

The Air Force case for buying more F/A-22s “was sufficiently compelling,” Roche said, to convince Rumsfeld to stick with earlier plans “and to give us a chance.” He was referring to an August 2001 decision of the Defense Acquisition Board to let the Air Force buy as many F/A-22s as it could with $43 billion in production funds.

At that time, the Air Force said it could produce 331 Raptors with that amount. (USAF had already bought eight Raptors, so the true Air Force figure is 339.) However, the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group thought USAF could produce no more than 295 (or 303, counting the first eight airplanes).

Thus, the difference in estimates was 36 airplanes.

Undersecretary of Defense Edward C. Aldridge, the Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief, agreed to let USAF try for the higher number, permitting the service to make investments in produceability that would lower unit costs down the road.

Roche is optimistic the 339-fighter fleet is attainable in the long run. His optimism is based on the fact that early lots of F/A-22s will be more expensive because of larger-than-expected up-front expenses. Those costs largely will be amortized by the time the production line gears up and begins producing at a steady rate, he pointed out.

Current airplanes are coming in at a unit cost of $121 million—$10 million more than expected just last summer, but the next batches will carry lower price tags, Roche asserted. “We see that, at about 100 planes, the marginal cost is going to be $75 million to $80 million” per Raptor, Roche said.

Part of the reduction will stem from the falling cost of avionics. Roche brokered a deal on F/A-22 radars, cutting the unit cost from $8.9 million to $4.6 million. How did he do this? In his previous job as a top executive of Northrop Grumman, Roche led the team that developed the Raptor’s radar and knows what the company can charge and still turn a handsome profit.

“I built it,” Roche said, grinning. “My team. They can’t lie.”

Looking for Efficiencies

Roche explained that the program will benefit from Moore’s Law. This axiom—formulated by legendary Intel executive Gordon E. Moore—suggested that computing power doubles and its cost declines by half every 18 months. This should improve the Raptor’s bottom line, as its processor components become easier to produce and cheaper to make.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper, speaking with Air Force Magazine, noted these initiatives and said more are coming.

Jumper said, “We want the same chance to go work with the other subcontractors, on the engine and avionics and the like, to be able to get those same efficiencies, which you can only get if you have a stable program.”

Rumsfeld has supported that line of thinking, said Jumper. He claimed, “Our [production] estimate will be much higher [than the currently stated 276 aircraft] once we get to go out and work on these efficiencies.” There will also be improvements in cost once the production line settles into a rhythm and “the learning curve takes us down rapidly,” Jumper said.

Several factors got the F/A-22 project into trouble last year, Roche explained. One problem stemmed from the DPG summer study itself. The team analyzing the need for the Raptor had been directed to consider buying as few as 180 aircraft. Contractors were aghast that DOD was even considering such a move. As a result, vendor costs soared.

“When the suppliers saw the 180 number—or less—they got hyper, and they started upping their prices because they have to be able to get their money back,” said Roche.

The Secretary went on to say that these were mostly start-up costs, which will now be amortized early in the program, making later aircraft that much less expensive.

The summer study coincided with discovery of new problems within the F/A-22 development program.

Unlike production, development does not labor under a cost cap. Air Force auditors noted that spending on development was starting to soar. By fall, USAF officials estimated development to be over plan by perhaps $690 million. By December, the figure had ballooned to $1 billion. Air Force acquisition executive Marvin R. Sambur said he would cut six Raptors to cover the amount. (See “Aerospace World: F/A-22 Development Cost Issue Grows,” January, p. 9.)

Some of the development cost increase was standard for a test program. The F/A-22 had an acoustic problem, “canopy howl,” which had to be fixed. There were problems with overheating brakes and with “fin buffet,” an aerodynamic battering of tail surfaces.

However, much of the cost increase was simply the result of the program having been shortchanged during the long “procurement holiday” in the 1990s. Many corners had been cut, and the Air Force was starting to see the effects.

“Horrible” Budget Actions

There were “horrible budget constraints” on the Raptor program in the last 10 years, Roche said. Things that should have been budgeted for—but weren’t—included “spare parts, … backup for software integration, … budgeting for the ‘unknown unknowns’ that come about with integration and test.”

When something broke on one of the precious few F/A-22 test aircraft, the part had to be cannibalized from another airframe or made to order. Why? Previous Air Force leaders never bought spare parts to account for this test period, Roche said.

In one case, the entire test team—Roche described it as a “standing army” of engineers, technicians, software specialists, managers, and support personnel—was left waiting while a single 18-inch piece of specialized hydraulic line was fabricated. The cost to maintain this team was $30 million a month.

In addition, Lockheed Martin was hit with a seven-week strike that delayed the test program because test aircraft were not being finished and sent to Edwards AFB, Calif. At times, the avionics operating system crashed.

Some problems stemmed from the way in which officials had arranged the test program. Jumper noted that the test team was taking an overly meticulous approach to verifying those test points which everyone knew the airplane could achieve. Jumper directed the team to focus on fewer and more representative test points, with concentration on those areas where confidence “was only at the 50 percent level.”

Jumper was shocked to discover that the Raptor flight-test program was developing F/A-22 tactics—a function usually, and wisely, left for operators to work out at a later time.

“The test guys are way too involved in the tactics,” said Jumper. “They had for themselves there a couple months’ worth of sorties that we don’t want test pilots doing. We don’t want the test pilots out fighting the airplane. We want them to tell us if it tracks stable.”

Roche said, “We found the test program, the [System Program Office], everybody intent to just have this go on, to check every I and cross every T, with no sense of urgency.” At such a pace, the test effort could have gone on almost indefinitely.

The revelations, coming at the time when the Air Force was pitching the requirement for 381 aircraft to Rumsfeld, “put us in a very awkward position to have to explain,” Jumper observed with notable understatement.

Adding Discipline

Rumsfeld allowed Roche and Jumper to take steps to “put some discipline back in the system,” Jumper said. The service bought spare parts for the Raptor test birds, though it may take as long as a year to fill the bins. The flight-test program was streamlined, and the program manager and flight-test director were reassigned. Lockheed Martin’s program manager was replaced, also.

“What we wanted was for the whole program [workforce] to realize how serious we were,” Roche noted. These officers were reassigned without prejudice because, in Roche’s view, they were doing things the way they had always been done—a way that had become inappropriate, given the priority of the program and the resources available to make it perform.

The new flight-test director at Edwards is also commander of the test center and so can “shift his resources back and forth” to remove simple stumbling blocks like the availability of a tanker or other seemingly minor issues. He reports directly to Roche and Jumper on a weekly basis on progress achieved.

Since the changes, the pace of testing has picked up considerably, Jumper said. He noted that, despite the delays of recent years, the Air Force still expects the F/A-22 to achieve Initial Operational Capability on schedule in late 2005.

Rumsfeld has long worried about an impending “bow wave” of funding commitments in which bills for many production programs come due all at once in the years 2008 and beyond. To avoid just such a problem, the Air Force always planned to stagger its buys of F/A-22s and F-35s, and the recent changes introduce some peril. Still, stretching out the Raptor production may not pose as much budgetary risk as would seem, Roche said.

“I may, as a guy from industry, believe that the F-35 estimates today are optimistic,” he asserted. Should there be a delay in the program—as there has been in almost every other fighter program since the 1960s—there would be a window into which the F/A-22 production could be extended.

Additionally, the bulk of USAF’s F-35 buys are not at the front end, Roche noted. The Navy and Marine Corps could “take the heavy dose of the early ones, and they need them more. … It helps us to come in a little later.”

Raptor Over F-35

Roche also suggested that the F-35 might be sacrificed to salvage the F/A-22.

He declared, “The F/A-22 is more important than the F-35, operationally.” The F-16, he went on, “is still a remarkable system, which is evolving more and more because of electronics, conformal fuel tanks, and other things. So we have ways to cope with a difficult future.”

The key thing, Roche summed up, is for the Air Force to deploy the F/A-22 in the needed numbers. With that, said Roche, “if we had to, we could fall back on something less than the F-35” to provide the necessary mass of fighters.

The Air Force bought its F-16s in large lots; the buys ran to more than 200 a year in the 1980s. These aircraft will begin to age out of the inventory in similarly large blocks beginning in 2007, when the first wave exhausts an 8,000-hour airframe life. Meanwhile, new F-16s are still entering the inventory and will not reach retirement age until about 2025.

The timing of the F/A-22 and F-35 entries into the fighter inventory is far from trivial. The F-15C fleet has been hard used over its lifetime and is showing its age. Several have experienced in-flight catastrophic failures. Last April, noted Roche, an F-15 flying a high-speed missile test mission out of Eglin AFB, Fla., disintegrated over the Gulf of Mexico. The F-15 has been saddled since then with speed restrictions to prevent a repeat of that accident.

Moreover, the F-15s have “a tremendous increase in recurring inspections,” Jumper said. Inspections every 10 to 20 hours are required for those items “that have become common failure parts.” The rate at which engines must be thoroughly inspected is also up, and depot maintenance is taking longer for the F-15.

Desperate Effort

Roche, noting that the F-15 is rapidly approaching retirement, said, “We’re trying desperately to avoid a situation where we’re trying to build the F/A-22 and SLEP [perform a service life extension program on] the F-15s.” As he put it, “We can’t do that.”

Current estimates peg the cost of a 10-year service life extension at upward of $5 billion.

The F-16 fleet will see a rapid numerical decline in the period 2010–18 when the F-35 is supposed to fill in behind it. Contemplating possible delay in F-35 production, Air Force planners have shaped an F-16 modification package that would extend the fighter’s service life by another 4,000 hours, to 12,000 hours. Roche would like to avoid that, since it would be costly—$8 billion, by some estimates—and only keep the fleet in action for another 10 years. USAF could be facing yet another bow wave in 2017, this time with no cushion.

To head off such a problem, the Air Force is putting more money into F-15 and F-16 spare parts, and it is paying off in higher readiness rates, Roche and Jumper said. Maintainers “are holding those airplanes together very, very well.”

They need to. Even with a buy of 381 F/A-22s, the Air Force will have to keep at least a handful of the lowest-mileage F-15s in the fleet through the early 2020s—at a point where they will be nearing 40 years old.

The problem might be aggravated by early retirement of USAF’s A-10 fleet. Under existing plans, the A-10s would stay in action until 2021. However, a proposal now working its way through the Air Force calls for phasing out the Warthogs by 2018 as a cost-cutting measure.

Likewise, USAF expects to hang onto its 1980s–vintage F-117 stealth fighters until about 2020. However, the Air Force would like to replace F-117s with F/A-22s, adding speed and agility to the quality of stealth, which the F-117 was first to exploit in battle.

Roche pledged that the Air Force will play no tricks to bring the F/A-22 into the fighting force. The service, he said, will never deploy airplanes that can’t fly as advertised or that lack the spare parts to operate. Such games were played with F-15s in the “hollow force” days of the 1970s. “We’re not going to have a Potemkin Village fleet of F/A-22s,” he insisted, adding, “I’ll take the heat” if the F/A-22 misses its IOC date.

Roche and Jumper hope that honesty in explaining and tackling the F/A-22’s teething pains—without requesting more money to fix them—will go a long way on Capitol Hill.

“My guess is that when we say, ‘We kept our word to you,’ they’ll accept that,” Roche said, pointing out that he and Jumper have staked their professional reputations on the outcome.