As Key Part Producers Disappear, Future Advanced Aircraft in Peril, Pentagon Warns

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is lifted by crane into its place for testing in the McKinley Climatic Lab Chamber at Eglin AFB, Fla., on Jan. 15, 2015. Lockheed Martin photo.

Suppliers of parts critical to the design and manufacture of next-generation combat aircraft are withering away because there’s not enough work to keep them in business, a new Pentagon study on the industrial base has found. The report echoes warnings from a major study last fall that sounded the alarm that domestic producers of some defense-critical products are down to one or none, compelling the US to rely on foreign suppliers.

The Pentagon suggested several steps—such as laws to rein in counterfeit parts and lifting restrictions on exports—that could make the difference in preserving capacity in some key sectors.

The May 2019 “Industrial Capabilities” report—required annually by Congress and released without announcement in mid-June—finds that current modernization programs don’t “provide enough opportunities to maintain skills to dominate major design and next-generation development work.” In fact, the report says that a coming lull in designing new combat airplanes—“an absence of new requirements in the next five to seven years”—will greatly worsen the problem, which will be further exacerbated by a coming wave of retirements among aerospace workers with specialized knowledge. This will lead to “a shortage of critical design capabilities,” the Pentagon warned.

“Maintaining innovation becomes nearly impossible while facing the constant threat of skilled aerospace, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers leaving the workforce and not passing along critical knowledge of next-generation technologies and fifth-, sixth-generation enabling capabilities to new employees,” the report concluded. This will directly affect new programs that will get underway in the mid-2020s, such as the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance system and the Navy’s F/A-XX fighter.

It’s not just the designers at the big six contractors that aren’t getting enough opportunities to work on new things. The makers of the parts themselves can’t keep innovating if they have no new programs to work on, and that’s “stifling” the development of new engineers to be able to design new components, the report noted, citing a “lack of consistent” research and development funds as the culprit.

Without a regular pace of development, new “revolutionary platform development” will become impossible, the Pentagon concluded. It said industry is “working closely” with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on NGAD and the penetrating counterair (PCA) programs “that will set the stage for next generation fighter aircraft capabilities and survivability and provide current teams with new design work, through which older employees can transfer unique skills and knowledge to the next generation.”

Besides hardware design, software design is also a “critical issue for the aircraft sector.” The Pentagon noted that while software made up about 15 percent of the engineering on fourth-generation fighters, it’s more than 40 percent on fifth-generation combat airplanes, and it’s getting harder to attract and hire software engineers capable of doing the work.

Only four companies are capable of making the “large, complex, single-pour aluminum and magnesium sand castings” necessary for construction of fighter airframes, the Pentagon report noted. “These suppliers face perpetual financial risk and experience bankruptcy threats and mergers mirroring the cyclicality of DOD acquisition.” One maker of such a part, crucial for a Marine Corps heavy lift helicopter, “has experienced quality issues and recently went through bankruptcy proceedings. Without a qualified or alternate qualified source for these castings, the program will face delays.”

The Pentagon noted that it’s aggressively investing with companies to make 3-D, or additive-manufactured parts that can do the same job, but it isn’t there yet.

“Programs like the next-generation bomber [B-21], the aerial-refueling tanker [KC-46 Pegasus], the Joint Strike Fighter [F-35], the MQ-25, and future rotorcraft modernization projects are partially addressing the workforce risks,” the Pentagon said, noting that the “Aircraft Working Group” is looking at the “risks related to single and sole source suppliers in the supply chain that may impact multiple aircraft programs.” The group is doing a “deep-dive” analysis on how to mitigate shortages in “areas like materials, aircraft components,” and skills.

In radars and electronic warfare, the Pentagon said the services have “roughly 100 radar systems in development, production, or sustainment,” with a like number in EW, and there are 23 companies that make this equipment. Three domestic suppliers dominate the radar market and four in electronic warfare.

Again, the “greatest concern in this sector is prime contractors’ ability to attract and retain the necessary software developers and engineers,” the Pentagon said. Human operators are giving way to artificial intelligence, and systems are “forced to be cognitive, agile, automated, and multi-purposed.”

A small pool of software designers and engineers means defense companies have to compete with the commercial sector and with each other for these people. “Recruitment, training, and retention become key employer capabilities to ensure companies have the manpower to conduct R&D, design, modernization, and system upgrades within tactically relevant timelines.”

The same problems afflict microchip makers, and the Pentagon said the US industrial base in this area will “continue to erode” due to diminishing numbers of “trusted foundries, obsolescence, diminishing manufacturing sources, materiel shortages, and counterfeit issues.”

Even commodities such as chaff and flares are becoming problematic. Aircraft drop metallic chaff to fool enemy radars and flares to defend against incoming heat-seeking missiles by tricking them into veering off course.

There’s only one commercial source for chaff now, due to decreasing orders from the DOD, while only two flare-makers survive, with “little incentive to invest in infrastructure” that could support a surge demand. Moreover, the two flare suppliers experienced plant explosions that forced them to shut down, leaving the Pentagon with no alternative sources. Since the accidents, both companies have “experienced quality and delivery problems,” and the services are obliged to look at “offshore” vendors. The Pentagon said the ManTech initiative, as with additive manufacturing, is exploring ways to “optimize the manufacturing techniques for cost effective production of printed chaff countermeasures.”

Similar problems afflict the armored vehicle, shipbuilding, missiles and other specialized military supply industries, the Pentagon reported. Some of the problems could be mitigated by widening the production runs of items, and the Pentagon said removing restrictions on the export of certain weapons could make the difference in many sectors.

Besides many piecemeal contract actions to try to preserve sources, the Pentagon report suggested several actions for Congress. They include:

  • “Near term budget stability” by enacting defense authorizations
  • Passage of new laws to combat Chinese counterfeiting of key parts, especially electronic components
  • Updating conventional arms transfer laws to permit more foreign sales of parts and equipment, especially items such as unmanned aerial systems, which are widely available from other countries
  • Approval of acquisition reforms that will “streamline and improve processes.”

Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper has repeatedly talked about the need to go back to the golden age of fighter aircraft procurement, where companies designed, developed, and fielded new aircraft every couple of years in the Vietnam War-era. The Century Series, in reference to the F-100 to F-111, was not expected to stay in service long because of the pace of technological change. Roper wants to see the Air Force adopt the “New Century Series,” where the service may buy 150 fighters meant to last 10 years, instead of 1,500 fighters for 30 years. This would allow the Air Force to constantly field the newest technology, and continue to provide new work for industry.