Washington Watch

March 1, 2008

Congress vs. England on F-22s

The Air Force will be permitted to ask Congress for four more F-22 fighters in a future 2009 defense supplemental request, but that’s it, and USAF won’t be allowed to extend its multiyear buy of the Raptor on the Bush Administration’s watch.

That was the import of a Jan. 14 letter from Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England to Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), of the House Armed Services Committee.

England opined that the US military has all the F-22s that it needs. His letter went on to suggest, in so many words, that if Congress disagrees and wishes to add on a few more, then it can also find the funds to do so.

The Air Force was widely expected to request in its 2009 budget a fourth multiyear buy of F-22s. The expectation was based on comments last fall from Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne. However, the airplanes did not appear in the final USAF budget document that was released Feb. 4.

England argued that buying the F-35 fighter for three services (Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps) “provides more effective capability to the joint force commander than concentrating investments in a single service by buying more F-22s.” England didn’t say why or when it had become an either-or choice between F-22s and F-35s.

The current multiyear procurement, he said, which tops out at 183 Raptors, “procures sufficient numbers of F-22s to deal with projected needs.”

He said the Pentagon will request more F-22s in the supplemental “to replace war-related losses of current aircraft. If those funds are appropriated, then the F-22 line could be extended beyond the current multiyear.”

England’s gesture was doubly empty.

First, a buy of four airplanes would extend the production line by only about three months. That does little to preserve the F-22 line long enough for a new Administration to review the plan.

Second, Congress last year loudly protested using the supplemental to buy brand-new, advanced technology airplanes as replacements for “legacy” aircraft lost or worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan. The furor was so great that the Air Force had to withdraw F-35s from the supplemental request. England is well aware of that.

England’s letter was a response to two letters from Congress.

One, signed out in November by six Senators, demanded an explanation from England as to why the Pentagon is only buying 183 F-22s when numerous classified studies show “a far larger number” is needed. The Senators wanted a briefing from England about his plans for tactical aviation by Jan. 15. The second, from Gingrey and 95 co-signers, demanded much the same thing.

According to legislative aides, England did send to Congress three studies about the need for the F-22. They said two of the three bore out the need for a number larger than the Pentagon is asking. However, England declined to declassify the reports for public release.

England, however, told Defense News on Jan. 26 that it was not true that some of the studies supported the 183 number. “The analysis by the Department of Defense supports the right number is 180-something airplanes,” England said.

The fate of the F-22 is now up to the next Administration to decide. The production line will begin to shut down within this year if no further orders are placed.

The F-15 Canary … in a Coal Mine

An F-15 that crashed last November was felled by a cracked, life-of-the-aircraft part that had been made several thousandths of an inch too thin, investigators revealed on Jan. 10. In solving the mystery, however, the accident investigation team also offered a chilling warning that more such problems could at any time ground much of the Air Force’s aging fleet of combat aircraft.

The investigation revealed that a longeron in the right rear of the canopy area buckled after 25 years of the repetitive heavy stress of air combat maneuvering. The part was originally specified to last 31,000 hours, so it was rarely scrutinized, and the extreme thinness of the defect made it hard to detect in normal inspections. The aircraft itself was only supposed to last a theoretical maximum of 8,000 hours, and had flown more than 5,000.

Armed with the information, Air Combat Command intensified the inspections of hundreds of grounded F-15A through D models. It discovered nine aircraft with similar cracks—all of them accidents waiting to happen. More troubling, the defective parts affected Eagles based around the world, and were not associated with any particular batch, run of aircraft, unit, or manufacturing year.

By late January, ACC was unable to return 162 grounded Eagles to service because they are known to have compromised parts in them.

The F-15 was made by McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997. Boeing engineers, working with the Air Force, helped identify the likely cause of the crash from inspection of the wreckage and computer simulations.

Many such “permanent” parts, which bear enormous loads, are built into aircraft such as the F-15 and cannot easily be inspected without a destructive tear-down inspection. Without disassembling each one, it’s impossible for ACC to guarantee that other types of aircraft don’t have similar problems with different parts.

“I’ve got to tell you, 2 November, my world really changed,” said ACC Commander Gen. John D.W. Corley at a press conference to explain the accident investigation results. “And it changed in a huge, unprecedented, and catastrophic way.”

“This is not just about a bad part,” Corley said. “This is not isolated.” He called the situation “a crisis.”

Corley said that 100 percent of the F-15 fleet “is fatigued” and of those, 40 percent “have bad longerons in them.”

“This is systemic, and it’s systemic not just in this fleet [but] … beyond the F-15,” Corley explained. He said he needs to rewing 248 A-10s because they date from the early 1980s and have been heavily used in five wars since then. “That’s a billion-plus dollars because those structures are coming apart on me,” he said.

Furthermore, “I’ve got service life extension programs on F-16s to try to keep that fleet of airplanes” from being grounded, Corley said. Even so, “I still have cracks in the bulkheads on F-16s.” He predicted that his fourth successor at ACC would probably have to buy yet another service life extension program to keep flying F-16s, which were to start retiring in the early 2000s. They will have to stay in service long past retirement age because the service can’t afford to replace them quickly enough with new aircraft.

Having only 60 percent of the F-15 fleet returned to flight status doesn’t allow ACC to conduct air sovereignty alert missions as required, nor does it allow pilots to properly maintain landing currency or proficiency, Corley said. The shortage of airplanes will disrupt the flow of new F-15 pilots through their schoolhouse and create a hole in the needed number of weapons school instructors at Nellis AFB, Nev.

“We’ve lost classes, … we’ve lost testing,” as well as exercises and required missile shots, Corley explained. “We may never get back to full health with this fleet.”

He added that air combat training hours are not like the hours accumulated by ordinary aircraft that don’t maneuver violently, as fighter aircraft must.

“It’s like dog years,” Corley said. An hour of air combat maneuvering is more like one-and-a-half hours “because of the stresses and the strains and the cumulative effect of putting nine Gs on and off this aircraft over and over again.”

The F-15 fleet, like all the legacy aircraft operated by ACC, has “brittle bones” Corley asserted.

The Air Force had planned to retain 177 F-15C/D models another 20 years, by infusing them with some new equipment. However, given what is now known about the fleet, it’s a “big question mark,” as to whether that will happen, Corley said.

Even if the service were given a blank check to replace its F-15s with new F-22s, as the Air Force wants to do, “that [production] line has a capacity,” Corley noted. “So you’d have to ask yourself, can I buy F-22s … at the rate that I need to buy F-22s?” The Air Force doesn’t want to go back to buying F-15s, which are only being made in small handfuls for foreign customers, but if it can’t replace absent aircraft quickly enough, even that option may have to be examined, Corley said.

Team Bomber

Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s two biggest airplane makers, announced in January that they have been secretly teamed for more than a year, preparing to compete for the Air Force’s new bomber program. Company officials said they expect money in the Air Force’s budget for the aircraft in Fiscal 2010, and wanted to have as much time as possible to prepare, since USAF needs to declare operational capability with the aircraft in 2018. That date was mandated in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Frank Cappuccio, Lockheed Martin general manager of the Skunk Works and head of strategic planning, said in a teleconference with reporters that his company approached Boeing nearly three years ago about the project, and the two made a formal deal in early 2007. He said they had to “make sure” that they had “adequate time” to develop options for the Air Force that are technically “mature.” The two are involved in a variety of trade-off studies and are verifying the art of the possible so that they can have high confidence in whatever they end up proposing for the USAF requirement.

Darryl Davis, Boeing’s president of Advanced Systems, said there won’t be enough time to develop a new engine for the 2018 bomber, so it will have to be off the shelf or a derivative of one flying today. However, he said that the team will try to keep the design flexible so a new engine could be an “incremental upgrade” on later models. Of specific interest for the follow-on engine are variable-cycle technologies that would allow an aircraft to fly efficiently both at supersonic speed or during long loiter missions.

The team is “agnostic” about whether the vehicle will be manned, unmanned, or “optionally manned,” Davis said. Cappuccio added that making the vehicle unmanned is not as big a deal as it has been made out to be, since the technology to remotely pilot an aircraft is well understood.

Although the two spokesmen declined to describe the specifics of the relationship, saying they are “proprietary,” industry officials said Boeing is the team leader. Cappuccio said expertise is being drawn from across both companies. He said Boeing was a good fit with Lockheed Martin because it possesses skills in producing both fighters and large aircraft, while Lockheed has unique capabilities in rapid prototyping and stealth.

Although the team subsequently released an artist’s concept of a B-2-like flying wing design, Cappuccio said the team doesn’t have a particular configuration in mind already, since the Air Force hasn’t yet firmed up its requirements. It would be hard to get engineers and designers to “let go” of a “pet” configuration, Cappuccio said, even if it wound up not answering USAF’s needs.

The two said that the FB-22 concept—a two-seat, large-wing variant of the F-22A flying today—will not meet USAF’s stated goals for the bomber and won’t be offered.

The team believes the 2018 goal is achievable, because the technologies are in hand and because the government has used terms like “time certain” and shown a willingness to freeze the design and curb add-on requirements, Cappuccio said. Improvements can be made along the way as “spirals” to later versions.

The 18-month run-up to the Air Force’s expected request for proposals will “allow us to take the data … and the concepts we have and then substantiate our claims [through] no-kidding, hard testing,” Cappuccio said. He also said Lockheed Martin had held discussions with Northrop Grumman—a partner on the F-35 fighter—about teaming for the bomber, but felt Boeing’s expertise made it an “overwhelming,” better partner for the bomber program.

Davis said that in order to make the 2018 deadline, first flight will have to occur in 2015, and production in 2016.