Hard Calls on Tactical Technology

April 1, 1986

The Pentagon’s top technologist sees an “inextri­cable” linkage between the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF, the successor to the F-15 air-superiority fighter) and the Navy’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA, a “stealthy” successor to the A-6 Intrud­er, a carrier-based attack plane).

Dr. Donald A. Hicks, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, told AFA’s recent Tactical Air Warfare symposium that “with these two programs, we’re either going to make all the platitudes about coop­eration, commonality, etc., work for real or lose the [two] aircraft [programs].”

Warning that the enormous capital investments as­sociated with the design and procurement of these two aircraft automatically ensure intense congressional scrutiny at a time when concerns about cost and com­monality run high, Secretary Hicks disclosed that the Defense Department will press the services toward firm linkage of the two programs. As a first step toward “interservice cooperation, we have established both a working-level joint-technology interface group and a flag-level review panel.” As the programs become more defined this year, “we [will] start making the hard calls,” he told the AFA symposium. As subsystems com­monality lists undergo thorough scrubbing, “we’ll be taking a hard look at cross-service applications—ATA as an F-1 11 replacement and ATF as an F-14 replacement, for example.” He hinted that the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) was also looking at other examples of ATA/ATF cross-service applications.

Despite its push for ATA/ATF commonality—which is eliciting guarded, if not gelid, service responses—OSD realizes “the political, emotional, and real difficulties of designing a multiservice airplane and the proba­ble compromises that would result.” Conversely, Dr. Hicks pointed out, “Given billions of dollars of RDT&E [research, development, test & evaluation] investment in the two programs—including the JAFE [the Joint Advanced Fighter Engine program]—we must aggres­sively explore amortizing that investment as efficiently as possible.” One obvious way to approach this chal­lenge is to “translate the up-front RDT&E investment into the largest possible number of aircraft in the field,” he suggested.

Renewed Premium on Cooperation

Advocating multimission design approaches and in­veighing against separatism—”either nationally or be­tween our services”—Secretary Hicks called for maximized cooperation and standardization: “We can and must do better in this area than we have done in the past. I believe Congress has given us a push in the right direction with its enactment of the legislation known as the Quayle-Nunn amendments.” This legislation, named for its principal sponsors, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), consists of two sepa­rate amendments. It provides for streamlined ap­proaches to multinational research and development projects and encourages such undertakings by “fenc­ing,” or setting aside, $200 million for that purpose.

In line with the Administration’s and Congress’s in­creasing emphasis on greater cooperation with NATO and other US allies, Secretary Hicks said a number of working arrangements are in place. These ventures in­clude the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), for which the US leads the development, and the Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM), for which the NATO allies are responsible. Another major Alliance-wide effort is the NATO Emerg­ing Technologies (ET) Initiative, oriented mainly toward providing a comprehensive automated standoff capabili­ty against the Warsaw Pact’s second echelon. The key technologies involved, Dr. Hicks said, are very-high­-speed integrated circuits (VHSIC), machine intelli­gence, supercomputers, advanced algorithms (soft­ware), and multimode sensors. As part of this initia­tive—and consonant with the Quayle-Nunn amend­ments—two new cooperative projects are about to be launched: the long-range standoff missile (LRSOM) and the complementary low-cost powered dispenser (LOC­POD) system, a short-range standoff weapon.

Underscoring in general terms the synergism that re­sults from a prudent mix of stealth and standoff technol­ogies, Secretary Hicks warned that “the advent of low-observable aircraft in no way obviates the requirement for standoff weapons.” It would be unrealistic to be­lieve, he said, “that technology can get us anywhere we want to go invisibly and with total immunity from the enemy’s defenses.” Dr. Hicks added that “I wish I had as much progress to report on the standoff side of the ‘stealth/standoff mix’ as I do for low observables.” He emphasized his “determination to see that the standoff component of the mix is not neglected through an exces­sive fascination with exotic platforms.” Acknowledging that the term “standoff” connotes different things to different people, Secretary Hicks suggested that, ideally, standoff “means I can shoot you, but you can’t shoot me. As a minimum, however, standoff should keep my multimillion-dollar airplane and the pilot in it from getting bagged by a fifty-ruble gun.” Some progress is being made on both accounts, he said.

In the air-to-air arena, the current “Lima” and “Mike” versions of the Sidewinder missile “have added head-on [tracking capability] and ECCM [electronic counter-countermeasures] that make them truly lethal.” The same applies to the “Mike” version of the Sparrow mis­sile, which is an “extremely capable design [that boasts improved] reliability, clutter discrimination, and ECCM thresholds.” In the air-to-surface arena, the Harpoon antiship standoff weapon, along with Maverick, Wall­eye, GBU-15, Skipper, a variety of guided bombs, and Hellfire, “at least points us in the direction we want to go,” Secretary Hicks told the AFA meeting.

Applauding the long-overdue fielding of the high­-speed antiradiation missile (HARM), he said that this weapon “gives us a capability to take out SAM [surface-to-air missile] systems we previously couldn’t touch and has the flexibility to give us a capability against others being fielded by the Soviets.” By the end of this decade, a total of some 8,700 AGM-88 HARMs is to be procured at a unit flyaway cost of $260,000.

The Coming “Hot Biscuits”

Citing findings from a recent Defense Science Board analysis, Dr. Hicks said that, on the basis of careful tradeoffs between technical risks and potential utility, seventeen technologies appear capable of producing “an order of magnitude improvement” over present tactical air warfare capabilities. Not unexpectedly, many of these potential technology bonanzas are related to the microelectronic field and involve advanced software/ algorithm development, soft/fault-tolerant electronics, and very-high-speed integrated circuits (VHSIC). The latter technology, he suggested, “could well provide a thirtyfold cost improvement and a hundredfold size re­duction” in processing systems. Translated into opera­tional hardware, the envisioned quantum jump to VHSIC should make it possible to squeeze the data-handling capacity of “today’s mainframe computer into a missile guidance system.” Microelectronics, Dr. Hicks suggested, “is an area in which we not only enjoy an advantage over our potential adversaries but see the

magnitude of that advantage increasing in the future.”

Other top-priority technologies singled out by Dr. Hicks that promise high payoffs in the tactical air war­fare arena include high-density focal plane arrays and millimeter-wave sensors. The Commander of AFSC’s Armament Division, Maj. Gen. Gordon E. Fornell, un­derscored the high promise of millimeter-wave technolo­gy in tactical air warfare applications, terming it “the next hot biscuit in the seeker world for night and all-weather operations.” Current Air Force work on milli­meter-wave seekers is oriented toward F-16 and F-15E upgrades that would allow these aircraft to search for, acquire, lock on, and destroy a variety of mobile and fixed high-value targets under adverse weather condi­tions.

Other high-payoff technologies in the tactical air war­fare arena, according to Secretary Hicks, are ramjet technology, advanced intercept algorithms, and multi-mode seekers that, in concert, should open the door to follow-on air-to-air missiles that, compared to AMRAAM and ASRAAM, can operate at higher al­titudes, have longer range, fly faster, and are more accu­rate in the terminal phase.

Tomorrow’s Stealthy Air War

Among the advanced technologies that will drive the design of such future tactical air warfare assets as ATA and ATF, stealth will probably be predominant, Dr. Hicks predicted. Lt. Gen. Thomas H. McMullen, the Commander of AFSC’s Aeronautical Systems Division, told the AFA symposium that the central challenge in designing ATF is to find the right tradeoffs between maneuverability and stealth. On a scale of one to ten, he predicted, ATF will probably come in as an “eight” in terms of across-the-board stealth, but still retain the “flight performance we need.” The Air Force and its contractors, he explained, have found that “there is a lot of synergism between some elements of [stealth] and performance, but there also are other [elements] that [are at] opposite ends of the pole. These at the opposite ends may turn out [to be] hard to trade off.”

Greatly reduced observability against all advanced sensors will be a life-or-death factor in tomorrow’s bat­tlefield environment, General McMullen said. He ex­plained that by reducing ATF’s basic signature and “carefully tailoring the electronic countermeasures we give it, we can mask our presence, which gives us a real chance to effectively conduct air combat over enemy territory—an action we now take only under selected threat conditions.” He said that emerging technologies applicable to ATF “promise to counter hostile systems throughout the electromagnetic spectrum—radar, visu­al, and infrared.”

Use of composites, especially in primary load-carry­ing applications, “will help us lower the observability of the ATF while at the same time reducing structural weight.” The ASD Commander predicted that “as much as fifty percent of the ATF’s airframe” may be made of composite materials.

In describing the central requirements associated with ATF, General McMullen juxtaposed recent Soviet gains in the quality and quantity of their tactical air-power assets with USAF’s need for an aircraft that, although limited in quantity, is “capable of competing and winning big in the 1990s and beyond.” As a result, “we are not looking for a fighter that provides an incre­mental, single-dimension increase in capability; we want—we need—a multidimensional big step up.” The Air Force, therefore, is tying the ATF to “emerging technologies on a broader front than we have ever under­taken in a fighter aircraft development.”

But, as AFSC Commander Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze told the same AFA meeting, cost strictures are impinging on the ATF’s performance requirements:

“The directive from Congress, understandably, is ‘make the plane affordable.’ ” This mandate caused the Air Force to shoot “for a $35 million unit cost based on the planned 750-airplane procurement at a production rate of seventy-two per year.” This cap, in turn, “represents a true challenge for our contractors, who will have to respond to requirements based on enemy capabilities while avoiding the temptation to focus on coming in [at] under $35 million a copy.”

The Challenge of Cost

Affordability, the AFSC Commander said, is a dou­ble-edged sword: “On one side, we [need] to look at having this fighter come in at a dollar value that is acceptable to Congress and to the Air Force. On the other side, we have to give it sufficient technical advan­tage over projected Soviet fighters to fight outnum­bered—and win.”

Explaining that the latter trait “costs money,” General Skantze promised that in the make-or-break demonstra­tion and validation (demo/val) phase of the ATF pro­gram, “we will be producing a design whose affordabil­ity is based on specific parameters. First is a unit cost that is sufficiently manageable so [that] we can buy the force structure needed at a reasonable production rate. Second is the incorporation of R&M [reliability and maintainability features] to ensure sustainability and availability for combat. Most important is providing fighter pilots based at Bitburg, Kadena, and Holloman with an ATF they can fight with and win. If we don’t do all three, we are wasting tax dollars and, most impor­tantly, risking young fighter pilots’ lives.”

He urged that “if we are going to build the ATF, let’s build it so [that] it truly buys back the dominant air superiority that allows us to fight and win outnumbered in the enemy’s backyard.” General McMullen, second­ing General Skantze, said the $35 million-a-copy cost goal is “a tough boundary condition for us to meet.” As a consequence, the program managers will have to deal—earlier than ever before in a fighter development pro­gram—with the integration of a number of specific per­formance capability tradeoffs. The ATF design will in­volve balances in “aerodynamics, propulsion, how far our radar can see, how hard our radar is to see, [and] how hard the aircraft is to see with [the adversary’s] radar.” Some of these considerations, General McMul­len acknowledged, are subjective at this point.

In the requirement to leverage technology both in terms of performance and affordability, propulsion plays a key role, according to the ASD Commander: “To fight effectively, we want the ATF to fly supersonic for extended periods, [necessitating in turn the ability] to maintain supersonic cruise without afterburner.” The means for achieving this is the joint advanced fighter engine (JAFE) program, under which Pratt & Whitney and General Electric are each working on prototype engines that are slated to start ground testing in August of this year. Terming the JAFEs the “most advanced turbofan engines ever built,” General McMullen said “we expect. . the [demonstration engines] to offer 150 percent improvement in hot and cold part life over the current ‘alternate fighter engine’ and . . . sixty percent fewer specialized tools required for their maintenance.” Also, the JAFEs should “give us sixty to seventy per­ cent improvements in aborted takeoffs, unscheduled engine removal, and in-flight shutdowns over current engines.”

In the avionics field, ATF will draw on the “full spec­trum of technology programs under way in our laborato­ries—programs like Pave Pillar, which will provide an advanced architecture enabling us to integrate our total avionics suite, and INEWS, the integrated electronic warfare system that will provide us with a fully integrated electronic warfare” capability covering the range of foreseeable threats. In this context, VHSIC technology will play a major role, because it gives the ATF designers “the ability to put fifty to a hundred times more circuitry on the same chip we are now using and then [to] operate [it] ten times faster.” Further, “Avionics built with VHSIC will require only about one one-hundredth as many integrated circuits; that means fewer boards and hence fewer cables, [which equates to] fewer failures at a fraction of the cost.”

If the operational feasibility tests under way pan out as expected, ATF will incorporate a self-repairing flight-control system that allows the aircraft to complete its mission even after sustaining heavy damage, General McMullen reported. A central design goal of the ATF program is to integrate in optimal fashion “the various systems that individually hold so much promise [and] to provide the pilot the maximum ability to use them,” the ASD Commander emphasized.

Automating for Operability

Pointing out that the number of cockpit controls has proliferated since World War II to a point where there are more than 300 in the F-IS, General McMullen stressed that, in the cockpit design of ATF, “we have got to take a giant step forward to help the driver, because his aircraft will be so much more capable. And we will need to exploit all of the possibilities [offered by] auto­mation.” But automation in the case of the Advanced Tactical Fighter is intended “to enhance, not diminish, the pilot’s responsibilities and roles.” The imperative is to work on man/machine integration prudently to keep “the airplane from outflying the pilot.” Automation is key to allowing the pilot to focus on “the critical aspects of the mission rather than being swamped by lots of information he can’t handle [at a time] when he can least afford to lose concentration.”

In contrast with current-generation fighters that inun­date the pilot with “tremendous amounts of highly com­pressed information from many sources . . . the ATF pilot will be given complete situation information when and where he needs it.” The goal is to “integrate man and machine to an unprecedented extent—pilot, airframe, engines, weapons, fire controls, and sensors, all work­ing together,” according to General McMullen. In the case of a system problem, for instance, “the pilot will be informed and provided recommendations and options to consider when the aircraft’s sensors call for evasive action or weapons employment decisions. In short, the pilot will know exactly what’s going on and what options there are to deal with the situation,” with all the informa­tion provided rapidly and in easily usable fashion.

Beyond the stress on basic air combat capability, the ATF’s design philosophy is anchored in the recognition that “it’s the number of winning sorties that counts, and given we have lots fewer airplanes than our adversary, it’s a simple deduction that we will have to use those we have more often,” General McMullen told the sympo­sium. “We simply can’t afford to build a super airplane like ATF and have it become a hangar queen, [which means that we must make it] simple to fly, simple to fight [with], and simple to maintain.”

During ATF’s pending demonstration and validation phase, the Air Force will seek to strike a basic perfor­mance balance in terms of speed, maneuverability, range, low signatures, electronic countermeasures, and cost so that, between mid-1988 and mid-1989, the design for ATF can be nailed down and full-scale development initiated, General McMullen said. In tackling this job, ASD will “have to beware of the ‘better’ that is the enemy of the good,” General McMullen pointed out.

While ATF is to be designed primarily as an air-superi­ority fighter, the aircraft is to incorporate a “good air-to-­ground capability, meaning a good load-carrying capa­bility and on-board systems that let us acquire and at­tack ground targets,” the ASD Commander explained.

Discussing other tactical air warfare issues, the ASD Commander stressed that the Air Force, with its A-b force, is living up to its responsibility to provide close air support for the US Army. For the future, “significant” improvements of the A-7s and upgrade efforts for the F4s are under consideration to enhance their close air support capabilities, he added.

The Status of AMRAAM and LANTIRN

The need for AMRAAM was underscored by nearly all panelists at the AFA symposium. As Secretary Hicks put it, “AMRAAM is now well into the development test and evaluation process and performing very well, [but I won’t pretend] that the program is without either sub­stantive problems or critics.” He added that “our chal­lenges, now that the missile is working, will be to keep its cost at an affordable level and to establish some badly needed credibility with Congress, the press, and the American public.” Pointing out that both present and next-generation US and allied fighter aircraft need the new missile “badly,” he warned that “starting over at this point is not a viable option, either from a cost or time standpoint.” Nevertheless, there “is a risk that that will happen, particularly if we don’t do the job right.”

General Skantze said that AMRAAM is “on track from a technical viewpoint, but perceived to be in trouble because of projected procurement costs.” AMRAAM, he complained, “has become a case study in micromanagement. The FY ’86 DoD authorization act states that Congress will withhold AMRAAM funds and require cancellation if [Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger doesn’t certify achievement of five specific elements of the program that normally are the program manager’s responsibility.” As a result, the program of­fice has been forced to spend more time on “data-gather­ing than managing. That can’t be Congress’s intention, but it’s the effect of the law’s language.” The Air Force, General Skantze pledged, “will persevere for a capable, affordable missile. As always, the cost/technical bal­ance is critical. But the bottom line is that if the program is killed, we will have to go out the next day and reinvent it. The country needs AMRAAM for a winning fighter force into the next century.”

Turning to LANTIRN, the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night system that, along with ATF and AMRAAM, represents one of the pivotal require­ments in the tactical air warfare arena, General Skantze said that “despite the fact that the program has nearly been killed several times, [it] has risen from the ashes. We have negotiated a firm fixed-price contract for 700 pod sets. . . . Testing on the navigation pod is complete, and we have just signed a contract for a second-year buy. The targeting pod program lags a year behind, but is progressing steadily. We completed development testing in December, successfully flying ninety-four sorties.”

Predicting that a production decision on the targeting pod would occur in the first half of this year, he said that “the program has come a long way and looks good.” The pilots who have flown the system “are convinced they can operate at night with the same tactics and situational awareness they have during the day.” The effect of the LANTIRN system, he suggested, is that the enemy can run, but he “can’t hide.”