In Focus: The Dual-Role Eagle

April 1, 1984

Washington, D.C., March 5—Although initially contested in the Pentagon by advocates of “high-tech” unmanned standoff weapons, the Air Force won OSD approval in February for its Dual-Role Fighter program and announced that 392 two-seat F-15s would be procured and modified for this purpose. The F-16 was the only other competitor in this source selection. In announcing the decision, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles A. Gabriel explained that these aircraft, previously programmed for procurement by the Air Force, would be modified by McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corp. at an estimated cost of about $1.5 billion and begin to enter the inventory in 1988.

This modified aircraft, designated the F-15E, will incorporate advanced avionics and weapons-carriage provisions, flight-control improvements, and minor structural changes to accommodate increased operating weights. A key element of a comprehensive modernization program for tactical airpower — known as the tactical fighter roadmap — the F-15E is “vitally needed to redress our tactical forces’ limited ability to operate over long ranges in adverse weather conditions, day or night,” according to General Gabriel. He added that at present “only the fully committed and aging F-111 in performing long-range, high-payload missions at night and in averse weather.”

The modified aircraft will retain its nonpareil air-to-air characteristics combined with enhanced performance in around-the-clock, air-to-ground operations at greater ranges and with increased weapons loads. Integration of advanced avionics, controls, and displays enables the F-15E to penetrate enemy defenses at low altitudes as well as to detect and destroy both fixed and moving targets under all weather conditions. This aircraft will carry a variety of air-to-surface munitions.

The Air Force’s decision on the Dual-Role Fighter was preceded by comprehensive flight evaluations and analyses of derivatives of the two competing designs — the F-15 and F-16. General Gabriel pointed out that “while the F-15 demonstrated clearly superior dual-role mission capabilities, the modified F-16 with its ‘cranked-arrow wing’ demonstrated high potential for follow-on development.” The Air Force, therefore, will evaluate the F-16XL further, including additional flight testing, along with other promising technologies for future application to a single-seat advanced version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The Unsinkable ATB Rumors

With Congress back in session, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and lobbying to influence the administration’s decision to hold acquisition of the B-1B bomber to 100 aircraft and, by the early 1990s, to begin deployment of the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB, colloquially referred to as “Stealth”) have one again moved into high gear. Media reports abound alleging a congenital Air force bias toward buying additional quantities of B-1Bs or follow-on models incorporating a degree of Stealth technologies developed by the losing contractor teams in the ATB competition — involving a more or less conventional rather than the “flying wing” configuration chosen for ATB by the winning contractor team — nearly the same low-observable characteristics could be attained at much lower costs.

It is somewhat ironic that specific percentages are being claimed for he performance of such a “B-1c” relative to that of ATB. The latter has not yet been fully developed and, of course, not flight-tested, with the result that its ultimate performance is not yet fully established. Those who favor buying additional quantities of B-1s also invoke the need for bolstering and modernizing the Air Force’s ability to support the Navy’s sea-control mission and claim that this can be accomplished best by buying more B-1s.

While there may well be cogent arguments for extending the B-1 buy, to parade them around Capitol Hill at a time when program stretch-out has become the new catechism of the budget-cutters might hurt the B-1B program as much as the ATB. When the Carter Administration terminated bye B-1A program almost seven years ago, it sought to justify this action largely by talking up the operational and technological merits of the “Stealth” bomber. Prominent military ad technical experts concurred at the time. As a result, there is a residue of good will toward ATB on Capitol Hill that might cause a backlash against the B-1 — especially the multiyear authorization facet of the program — if serious doubt is created about the Air Force’s intent to move out smartly on the “Stealth” bomber.

USAF’s Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze, affirmed unambiguously at a special Pentagon press conference in February that the air Force and the Department of Defense support the “two-bomber program,” that the Air Force is giving “no consideration” to buying more than 100 B-1Bs, that this policy was firm and would continue, and that he expected the first ATBs to enter the operational inventory in the early 1990s. Stressing that both the B-1B and the ATB programs were on schedule and had the full support of the Air Force, he said that “both of them are proceeding well and satisfactorily.”

There is no evidence that the ATB program will slip behind USAF’s schedule to introduce the aircraft into the inventory in the early 1990s, he said, adding that the program is “very robustly funded.” The program schedule formulated several years ago is realistic and avoids undue technological risk. He refuted claims that the Air Force laid out the schedule in a way that caused stretch-outs by not allocating enough money: “The problem is the technologies were so new to us, and our understanding were so thin of how you’d use those technologies and how you apply them,” that throwing additional money at the ATB program “would not have bought us anything.”

Asked by this reporter about the feasibility of substituting a derivative of the B-1B optimized for stealthiness for ATB, General Skantze explained, “What you have to appreciate is that if you want to maximize the advantage of Stealth technology, you have to begin with a clean sheet [of paper], with a new design. If you take an existing aircraft — I don’t care whether it’s a B-1 or an F-15 or an F-111” — its radar cross section can’t be reduced to the level of ATB because its existing geometry imposes “fundamental limitations.”

General Skantze acknowledged that the program schedule creates a “severe phase-down problem” by going from a proposed authorization request for forty-eight aircraft in FY ’86 to zero in FY ’87, but countered that “we made a conscious decision to acquire that B-1B force of 100 as efficiently as we could. Thus, we build forty-eight in the last year.”

The Air Force’s rationale for a two-bomber program — adopted by the Administration as national policy in October 1981 following an intensive OSD review — centers on buying a limited number of B-1s “rapidly in the most efficient fashion” and fielding this force by 1988, while at the same time setting the stage for ATB, which promises “much more of the dramatic capability in terms of stressing Soviet defenses” over the long term, according to General Skantze. By building two different bombers, each of which requires specialized Soviet defenses, the Air Force expects to compound Moscow’s air defense problem “synergistically,” he added. Ancillary benefits of the two-bomber approach include the ability to maintain “a modicum for competition” and to “hedge” if one of the other type of bomber runs into technological or operational difficulties.

The B-1B program, he said, is “quite a few months ahead of schedule,” with rollout of the first production aircraft now expected as early as September of this year. The prospects are that the B-1B program will not only come in ahead of schedule but under budget, meaning below $20.5 billion in FY ’81 or $28.3 billion in “then-year” dollars, he explained. On the other hand, he warned, if the program is stretched out by cutting the monthly production rate from four to three aircraft — as recommended by some members of Congress — costs would go up by as much as $4 billion and the entire multiyear procurement structure would be voided.

US Space Launch Strategy

Both the Space Shuttle and expendable launch vehicles (ELVs) are needed for the foreseeable future from the point of view of national security, the Under Secretary of the Air Force, Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., told Congress recently. Stressing that there is a “validated requirement” for an assured launch capability under peace, crisis, and conflict conditions, Secretary Aldridge explained this meant “complementary launch systems to hedge against unforeseen technical and operational problems and the need for a launch system suited for operations in crisis and conflict situations.”

He conceded that while this assured access across the spectrum of conflict is essential from the Pentagon’s point of view, “the ability to satisfy this requirement is currently unachievable if the US mainland is subjected to direct attack.” The Defense Department, therefore, is pursuing technologies to “ensure sustained operations of critical space assets after homeland attack,” he told Congress. Secretary Aldridge added that while the Pentagon supports the Shuttle and will rely on its four Orbiters for “primary access to space for all national security systems,” sole reliance on this peacetime system would entail “an unacceptable national security risk.” The limited number of Orbiters makes them “ill-suited and inappropriate for use in a high-risk environment.,” Secretary Aldridge stressed.

The solution to the problem, he suggested, must be an affordable and effective approach that entails neither undue technical risks nor lengthy development periods — in short, unmanned, expendable launch vehicles. ELVs complement the Space Shuttle by providing an assured launch capability under all conditions except general nuclear war. Since they are expendable, the loss of a single vehicle jeopardize only one mission rather than truncating permanently the national launch capability — as would the loss of one of the four reusable Orbiters — Secretary Aldridge asserted.

He was guarded in regard to the potential need for a fifth Orbiter, saying that the current four-Orbiter, saying that the current four-Orbiter fleet would support seventeen to twenty-five flights a year if all four vehicles were in service. Such a level of Shuttle launches would meet NASA’s and the Defense Department’s requirements, but there is concern about how long the fleet of four-Orbiters can sustain a heavy flight schedule, given that “everything has a finite lifetime.”

Because the Defense Department has “bumping rights” for national security priority use of the system, the Pentagon has never explicitly supported the acquisition of a fifth Orbiter. The need for a fifth Orbiter hinges on the question of how to maintain the long-term utility of the Shuttle program for the civil, commercial, and foreign users who make up about two-thirds of the available payload, he suggested. The answer to that question may be some time in coming because “our experience of the past year indicates that, while the Shuttle is a momentous achievements, it is still a most complex system and will require many more flights to gain insights into actual component performance and life expectancy.”

Cautioning that space systems don’t always work perfectly, that launch schedules change, that unpredictable failures of spacecraft on orbit necessitate quick replacements, and that the Defense Department’s dependence on space systems is accelerating and increasing, Secretary Aldridge stressed that “not all Orbiters will be able to launch certain future Defense payloads.”

Also, the “flexibility to integrate payloads into the Orbiter is not as we anticipated… and “operational’ launch rates have not yet been demonstrated.” Lastly, the Pentagon requires “insurance” against possible Shuttle failures, fleet outages, and system vulnerabilities. This fundamental concern would exist, he stressed, regardless of the size of the Orbiter fleet.

The Defense Department, Secretary Aldridge noted, is concerned because “over the years we have observed a significant rise in the fraction of the [Shuttle] cost that is devoted solely to launching our spacecraft. This increase, unfortunately, has been at the expense of our mission payloads.”

As a result of these factors, the Defense Department is now investigating the use of a small number of complementary ELVs: “We would continue to plan eight to ten missions a year on the Shuttle but could complement this with two ELV flights per year. Some ninety percent of NASA’s mission model would remain the same.” He added that a key advantage of this approach is that “ELVs would give us additional flexibility and extend the life of the current four-Orbiter fleet while we are considering follow-on national launch capabilities.”

The West Coast Space Shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg AFT, Calif., Secretary Aldridge reported to Congress, is now ninety-five percent complete. The first Shuttle launch from Vandenberg is scheduled for October 1985, and the full operating level of four launches a year is to be reached in 1987.

Findings Encouraging on Superhard Silos

The air force and the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) are piling up evidence that ground bursts of nuclear weapons dig up craters of significantly smaller diameters than previously assumed and that these craters tend to take the shape of a cup rather than that of a saucer. Ancillary findings suggest that dry, loose soil tends to shrink crater size while wet, dense soil tends to enlarge it. This new evidence is of considerable practical importance because it strengthens the case of the Air Force/DNA superhard-silo program that was spawned in turn by the discovery that new Soviet ICBM silos were far harder than originally assumed by US intelligence.

Superhard silo structures have already been shown to be about twenty-five times harder to nuclear air-blasts than the best Minuteman silos. While precise data are classified, the evidence accumulated recently by the Air Force and DNA indicates that superhard silos would be outside the crater area, resist even extremely high overpressures, and thus survive a near-miss.

Last May, “minijade,” a small nuclear device, was tested in an underground cavern at the Nevada Test Site. While the cavern has not yet been re-entered, camera probes have photographed a crater that appears to corroborate other recent findings concerning smaller-than-expected crater diameters.

Another series of tests meant to probe crater characteristics, known as the Cratering and Related Effects Simulation (CARES) program, also supports the new estimates. The so-called near-source simulation test (NSS) of last December, a part of the CARES research, yielded craters that were virtually identical to these findings.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has awarded a series of contracts for the design of a Hard Mobile Launcher for the new small ICBM (SICBM). The four contractors — Boeing, General Dynamics, Martin Marietta, and Bell/Textron — will work on concept definition for a vehicle to protect, transport, and launch the SICBM. These preliminary designs will include on-road as well as some off-road capability and center on deployment of the weapon on government installations.

Other SICBM contracts — some already awarded and other pending — involve booster definition as well as work on guidance and penetration aids. A key feature of the preliminary SICBM contracts is that they involve a parallel definition approach in order to reduce the time required for concept definition, encourage innovation, and drive down systems cost. The Air force has cautioned all SICBM contractors is that they involve a parallel definition approach in order to reduce the time required for concept definition, encourage innovation, and drive down systems cost. The Air Force has cautioned all SICBM contractors that when full-scale development and procurement source selections are made in the later part of this decade, “the costs must be reasonable and affordable.”

Washington Observations

ê The Soviet Union is lowering a new electronic curtain to blind this country’s national technical means for verifying Soviet compliance with strategic arms-control accords. In addition to encrypting essential missile flight telemetry data in violation of the SALT accord, the Soviets have started to jam three of the most important sensors available to the US to gauge Soviet compliance with SALT II terms governing ballistic missile performance: Cobra Dane, Cobra Ball, and Cobra Judy.

Cobra Dane is a phased-array radar located on Alaska’s Shemya Island that monitors Soviet missile tests. Cobra Judy is a shipborne phased-array radar aboard the USNS Observation Island that provides essential information about Soviet ballistic missile developments programs as well threat analyses for US ballistic missile defense programs. Cobra Ball is a specially configured KC-135 that usually operates out of Shemya to perform missions complementary to the other two Cobra systems.

The Soviets seemingly believe that these three sensor systems provide the same kind of information that they are trying to deny the US by encryption of their missile test-flight data.

ê Secretary of the Navy John Lehman recently told this writer that a unified command, such as the proposed unified space command, “does not lend itself to resource management.” Stressing that the current arrangement, with the Under Secretary of the Air Force acting as the chairman of all defense-related space efforts, is working “extremely well” and is a “remarkably efficient apparatus” for coordinating and “harmonizing” the space efforts of the various agencies of government concerned with national security, he said that “I have yet to see one example of duplication since this system has been set up.” He added that “if things are working, why do we need something else?… I don’t follow that logic.” Unified commands, he stressed, are suitable for joint military operations, but don’t lend themselves to development and resource management. Further, under such circumstances they contribute to “dilution of civilian control.”

Concerning Soviet activities that have become discernible since the recent break in arms-control talks between the two superpowers, Secretary Lehman told Air Force Magazine that Moscow has turned over a third Foxtrot diesel-powered — and hence very quiet — submarine to Cuba. A diesel/electric-powered sub “in a chokepoint is a very difficult problem [and] worrisome.” With three of these submarines in Cuba, US sea-lanes out of the Gulf of Mexico are seriously threatened, he said.

Furthermore, the Cubans are about to receive another Soviet frigate as part of an extensive naval modernization program. There has also been a “very substantial surge in Soviet Delta missile subs into the Atlantic.” He termed this increase in Delta subs “a direct response” to the US deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe. These submarines are not, however, as effective in the Atlantic as in their normal deployment areas because the guidance systems of their missiles are optimized for longer flight times, he said.