Aerospace Technology Exposition

Nov. 1, 1996

If one adjective could describe the military advances on display at AFA’s Aerospace Technology Ex­position held September 16-18 in Washington, D. C., it would be “full-spectrum.” This year’s exhibitions covered a broad array of defense technologies and concepts, from Joint Strike Fighter mockups and missile casings to laser tracking systems, militarized laptop computers, and desktop simulators with amazing graphics.

Air Force visitors who thronged the exhibit hail found advanced en­gines for unmanned aerial vehicles and new electronic warfare systems, computer security booths and ejec­tion seats. One firm touted its rocket engine recycling capabilities.

Strike Fighter

Exhibitors were eager to discuss their chances in the last big airframe program of the century—the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

In a number of exhibit booths, booming rock music combined with slide shows depicting Third World conflicts and other potential threats served as a backdrop for the presen­tations of competing contractor teams.

With the US Air Force planning to purchase more than 2,000 JSF air­craft (and other US and foreign mili­tary services preparing to buy hun­dreds more), the program seems certain to determine the shape and composition of the fighter aircraft industry for the next fifty years, ac­ cording to one JSF team leader, Lockheed Martin.

The Lockheed Martin presentation noted that the company faces a formi­dable task in adapting one airframe to requirements of the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as Britain’s Royal Navy. The Navy and Air Force use different jet fuels, for instance, and their existing AIM-9 missiles are not interchangeable.

“Commonality numbers range any­where from seventy-five to ninety-five percent” of the total system, said David Wheaton, vice president and program manager for Lockheed Martin. “I’m seeing all the services work well together,” he added, as they know a joint program is the only way a new tactical aircraft can be made affordable.

Boeing is another team leader in pursuit of the JSF program. Its modu­lar design for the new fighter has a common forebody and a common aftbody and tail, with a single-piece wing structure and a fuselage tailored for such individual needs as greater durability for carrier deck landings.

According to Boeing representa­tives, the performance characteris­tics of their Joint Strike Fighter will include a combat radius thirty per­cent greater than that of current US strike fighters, plus significantly greater acceleration and agility.

Another team vying for the Joint Strike Fighter award is composed of McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grum­man, and British Aerospace. These firms are pushing their unique-look­ing design as the JSF variant backed by the most prior fighter experience. Among them, team members have developed the US Navy’s F- 14 Tom­cat and F/A-18 Hornet, USAF’s F­15 Eagle, and the multinational Tor­nado.

McDonnell Douglas pointed out that, as the builder of the venerable F-4 Phantom II fighter, it is the only contractor ever to have manufactured a fighter airframe used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Phantom also has been the mainstay of numerous foreign air forces.

Airborne Laser

Lasers—specifically, the Airborne Laser program—were another highly visible item at this year’s exhibition. With the ABL contract set to be awarded in mid-November, jockey­ing between Boeing’s team and a Rockwell-led effort seemed intense.

Rockwell’s ABL display included graphics depicting a mock theater missile engagement, complete with a deep, repeating boom signifying a booster kill.

“This will revolutionize air war­fare,” insisted Brent Brentnall, Rock­well ABL business development man­ager. “When I was in the Air Force, you engaged at a half-mile distance with a.50-caliber machine gun. Now, you may engage at hundreds of miles with a beam of light.”

Boeing touted its union with TRW and Lockheed Martin on an Airborne Laser team. Twenty years of techni­cal advances have made such a weap­on possible, the firm said.

For instance, recent guidance and control tests have shown conclusively that it is possible to focus and point a laser at a missile hundreds of miles away, despite the bouncing of aircraft and turbulence of air. All that’s needed now is to demonstrate the feasibility of integrating known technology into a single package capable of downing theater ballistic missiles in boost phase, claimed ABL officials.

Theater missile defense will be only the first airborne use of laser weapon technology, Mr. Brentnall predicted. “I don’t think we know yet what we’re going to do with this,” he said.

Spacebased Eyes

Technology for spacebased eyes that will likely be necessary to deal with the ballistic missile threat was also on display at the 1996 exhibit. Material available at the Air Force Spacebased Infrared System Program Office display maintained that the SBIR system will be the necessary follow-on to today’s Defense Sup­port Program surveillance satellites. Plans call for an evolutionary transi­tion away from DSP, with new ground equipment in place by 1999 and de­livery of SBIR system satellites be­ginning in 2002.

TRW’s exhibit, meanwhile, pro­moted the low-level component of the SBIR system architecture, the Space and Missile Tracking System. SMTS satellites would operate in low-Earth orbit, providing continu­ous observation of ballistic missiles from boost phase to atmospheric re­entry. Current plans call for an SMTS satellite constellation comprising twelve to twenty-four spacecraft.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

The Boeing booth featured a large number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs. Boeing supplies the data-exploitation, mission-planning, and communications ground element for the Predator, a medium-altitude UAV that already has seen service over Bosnia-Hercegovina. With Lock­heed Martin, it is developing Dark-Star, an advanced, stealthy UAV that will allow theater commanders to stare at battlefields for an extended period.

Earlier this year, the DarkStar pro­gram suffered a setback when a pro­totype crashed on takeoff on what was to be a test flight. However, “we pretty much understand what hap­pened,” said Boeing’s Alex Henschel. “You’re going to end up with a better vehicle because of the experience.”

Raytheon E-Systems, meanwhile, promoted a wide range of electronic communications and intelligence equipment. E-Systems makes the Common Ground Segment equip­ment that permits communication with and control of DarkStar and Global Hawk UAVs; other products include the Commanders’ Tactical Terminal, the Next-Generation Ra­dio, and a variety of information technology intended to support the modern digital battlefield.

New Airlifters

A large part of the McDonnell Douglas exhibit was devoted to the C-17. As Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall noted in her speech to AFA’s Convention, the C-17’s outlook has changed quite a bit over the last year.

Twelve months ago, the airlifter’s political future was cloudy because of cost and development problems. To­day its future is bright, thanks to tech­nical improvements and an Air Force order for a full 120-aircraft fleet.

The importance of airlift will only increase in coming years, as perma­nently forward-deployed forces con­tinue to dwindle. McDonnell Doug­las officials made use of this fact by promoting the C- 17’s applicability to real-life deployment problems.

They said it takes sixty-five mis­sions and more than six days to trans­port a fighter squadron’s support equipment and munitions from Eu­rope to the Middle East via C-130. C- 17s, on the other hand, could move the same load in seventeen missions spanning little more than two days.

Over at the Lockheed Martin area, however, the company was heavily promoting its new C- 1 30J airlifter. The firm said that major system en­hancements will dramatically reduce the ownership cost of the J model Hercules. Manpower costs will drop by about forty percent and mainte­nance man-hours by about fifty per­cent, compared with previous models.


Lockheed Martin also called at­tention to F-16 operations over the Balkans. In May 1995, an F-16 from the 555th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Wing, became the first Fight­ing Falcon to drop a laser-guided bomb in combat. This past September, an F-16 from the 23d Fighter Squad­ron, 52d Fighter Wing, achieved a similar combat first for the aircraft when it fired an AGM-88 High-Speed Antiradiation Missile to suppress an adversary’s air defense radar in Iraq.

Other firms drew on today’s head­lines in support of their products. With the US attack on Iraq still fresh in the minds of visitors, Northrop Grumman provided extensive data detailing how its premier airframe—the B-2 bomber—could be used to attack regional adversaries, such as Iraq, with conventional weapons.

Northrop Grumman officials point­ed out that the B-2’s main conven­tional warheads, 2,000-pound preci­sion guided weapons, cost about $18,000 apiece. An air-launched cruise missile, in contrast, costs about $1 million—and it only carries a 1,000-pound warhead. Thus, a B-2 (which can carry up to sixteen of these weapons) on a deep-strike mis­sion would deliver a load of weap­ons that cost only $288,000. An equivalent cruise missile strike would cost $32 million. The difference is large enough that each B-2 could pay for itself via munitions savings in just twenty missions, according to Northrop Grumman calculations.

Furthermore, noted company offi­cials, the B-2 with a single refueling can reach any target on Earth from one of three secure bases: Guam, Di­ego Garcia, or Whiteman AFB, Mo. The conclusion is, according to the company: “B-2s are a cost-effective way to maintain US military power.”

Awareness and Precision

Surveillance and target acquisi­tion systems also were a critical fea­ture of the Northrop Grumman ex­hibit. The firm is the prime integrator for the E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft, which was finally approved for production this fall af­ter years of arduous development testing, including combat service.

One new focus, according to Nor­throp, is a system-of-systems ap­proach that would link the E-8 Joint STARS, the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and other surveillance plat­forms to such precision strike plat­forms as the B-2.

With precision strike becoming an increasingly important part of USAF strategy, a number of firms displayed developmental precision guided mu­nitions. Lockheed Martin Electron­ics showed its Wind-Corrected Mu­nition Dispenser, an inexpensive kit intended to turn existing, general-purpose cluster bombs into PGMs. High commonality with the Joint Direct Attack Munition will help reduce the number of parts in the WCMD kit and keep costs down, claimed Lockheed Martin. CMS De­fense Systems promoted its Autono­mous Freeflight Dispenser System, a boxy glider that can dispense a number of different kinds of sub-munitions as it steers itself toward a target area.

Air Combat Weapons

Numerous full-size missile mock­ups were also on display. Hughes featured the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and AIM-9X.

Company officials pointed out that the AMRAAM is now a combat-proven weapon, having scored two victories over Iraq and one over Bosnia. Production models of the beyond-visual-range missile are ex­ceeding theal of 1,500 hours mean time between failures. An AMRAAM follow-on, the Future Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (FMRAAM), is un­der development by Hughes’s UK sub­sidiary for use by the Eurofighter 2000.

The AIM-9X will be USAF’ s next-generation short-range infrared weap­on. Seeker and airframe performance will be greatly enhanced over previ­ous AIM-9 Sidewinders, says Hughes.

The new missile must acquire a head-on target maneuvering at high G and then reach the target swiftly. Current Sidewinder performance may not be good enough to guarantee victory in close-in combat. British Aerospace is offering an upgraded Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile as the AIM-9X solution. One of ASRAAM’s highest-value com­ponents, the seeker, is a Hughes prod­uct—designed, developed, and pro­duced in the US, points out BAe.

Raytheon offered its own AIM-9X mockup, complete with a “rotate to view” seeker head, which com­pany officials called a breakthrough in seeker technology.

Niche Products

Computers are everywhere at de­fense expositions. One of the more unusual computer packages offered came from GTE: its Virtual Office/Communications System. The VO/CS is a military office in a box—a 120 MHz+ color laptop, color inkjet printer, high-resolution scanner, and secure voice and fax communication interface mounted in a watertight plastic case. Options include a color digital camera.

Environmental products are also becoming a larger presence in aero­space technology. Thiokol reported that it provided the best value in solid rocket motor demilitarization, using the slogan, “Over Twenty Mil­lion Pounds of Propellent Processed.” Peacekeepers, Titan IVs, and Min­utemen are among the rockets Thio­kol has recycled.

Peter Grier, the Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Arena of Space,” appeared in the September 1996 issue.