Air Force fighter jets won’t be built to last

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

The Air Force be­lieves it can de­velop, test and field a so­phis­ti­cated 21st-cen­tury fighter jet within five years.

Five years after that, the plan is to do it all again.

In its quest to in­cor­po­rate to­mor­row’s tech­nol­ogy into to­day’s air­planes, the Air Force is em­bark­ing on one of its most sweep­ing over­hauls in decades, mov­ing away from reliance on ex­pen­sive pro­grams that pro­duce jets ex­pected to last 50 years or longer and to­ward a fleet with a va­ri­ety of air­craft, each with a spe­cial­ized mis­sion and a much shorter run­way life.

The ser­vice’s Dig­i­tal Cen­tury Se­ries — the suc­ces­sor to the Cen­tury Se­ries pro­gram, which ran through the 1950s and early 1960s — calls for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary part­ner­ship be­tween the Pen­tagon and pri­vate in­dus­try. It de­mands that mil­i­tary con­trac­tors draw up plans, con­duct all nec­es­sary re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and de­liver com­bat-ready planes to the Air Force within five years.

An­a­lysts and re­tired Air Force of­fi­cers say the ini­tia­tive, spear­headed by the ser­vice’s top ac­qui­si­tion of­fi­cial, Will Roper, is des­per­ately needed and that the U.S. mil­i­tary needs to bet­ter in­cor­po­rate dig­i­tal engi­neer­ing and other tech­nol­ogy into its next-gen­er­a­tion fight­ers.

The state of U.S. air power, they say, is “geri­atric” and a fail­ure to stay at the fore­front of avi­a­tion could erode the na­tion’s mil­i­tary ad­van­tage over rapidly mod­ern­iz­ing ri­vals such as China.

An­a­lysts also warn that the path is fraught with pit­falls. One is skep­ti­cism that con­trac­tors — many of which are used to multi­bil­lion-dol­lar pay­days and huge profit mar­gins in de­fense con­tracts — will make the money they ex­pect. Other real con­cerns in­volve the time, money and man­power needed to per­form main­te­nance on a va­ri­ety of jets, each of which could have wildly dif­fer­ent equip­ment.

“The ini­tia­tive here … makes sense. The prob­lem is, can we turn things up rapidly enough?” said Richard P. Hal­lion, a lead­ing Air Force his­to­rian and for­mer se­nior ad­viser for air and space at the Pen­tagon.

“The na­ture of the fighter it­self is chang­ing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the fighter is go­ing away. It doesn’t mean there’s no role for air-to-air com­bat. There cer­tainly is. But air­craft are now be­com­ing part of a very broad, dis­trib­uted net­work where you have in­hab­ited air­craft in­creas­ingly linked with [un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles] in­creas­ingly in­formed by ground-based, at­mo­spheric, space-based sen­sors. And all of this is net­ted to­gether where the air­craft it­self is not only an in­for­ma­tion sharer; it’s also a sen­sor and a shooter com­bined.”

Sev­eral re­tired high-rank­ing Air Force of­fi­cials told The Wash­ing­ton Times that the ser­vice has failed in many ways to keep pace with rapid tech­no­log­i­cal changes. In­stead, the Air Force and other ser­vices are some­times im­peded by huge con­tracts de­signed to pro­duce one plane that is ex­pected to do all things.

The best ex­am­ple may be the F-35 fam­ily of fighter jets, a $1 tril­lion deal with Lock­heed Mar­tin that is ex­pected to last 60 years. The pro­gram has been plagued by de­lays and re­ported prob­lems with the air­craft, lead­ing to tough ques­tions about whether the Pen­tagon needs to re­think the way it de­signs and fields its fight­ers.

“The Air Force has a geri­atric force struc­ture,” said re­tired Air Force Gen. David Dep­tula, now dean of the Mitchell In­sti­tute for Aero­space Power Stud­ies. “It is lag­ging [be­hind] the fast pace of the de­vel­op­ment of tech­nol­ogy. It is fall­ing be­hind the nec­es­sary re­cap­i­tal­iza­tion rate of old air­craft. And it is still re­liant on a Cold War ac­qui­si­tion par­a­digm.”

Mr. Dep­tula said the Dig­i­tal Cen­tury Se­ries ap­proach is “spot on” and shows the Air Force rec­og­nizes its need for deep, last­ing changes.

New era, new ca­pa­bil­i­ties

At its core, the Dig­i­tal Cen­tury Se­ries pro­gram aims to use the lat­est tech­nol­ogy to keep ad­ver­saries — in­clud­ing an em­bold­ened China, which has in­vested heav­ily in its mil­i­tary and de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties — off bal­ance and un­sure of what the U.S. has in its arse­nal.

Imag­ine if “ev­ery four or five years there was the F-200, F-201, F-202 and it was vague and mys­te­ri­ous … but it’s clear it’s a real pro­gram and there are real air­planes fly­ing,” Mr. Roper told De­fense News in a re­cent in­ter­view. “Well, now you have to fig­ure out: What are we bring­ing to the fight? What im­proved? How cer­tain are you that you’ve got the best air­plane to win?”

Cur­rent fighter jets are up­dated rou­tinely and un­dergo rig­or­ous main­te­nance pro­to­cols to en­sure their com­po­nents and soft­ware are at the cut­ting edge. But mil­i­tary and de­fense in­dus­try an­a­lysts say that ap­proach of­ten runs into prob­lems be­cause it is dif­fi­cult to con­stantly up­grade air­craft built decades ago.

Many of the best­known U.S. fight­ers, such as the F-22 (in­tro­duced into ser­vice in 2005) and the F-16 (first de­ployed in 1978), are de­signed to han­dle 8,000 flight hours or more. Although the nuts and bolts of the air­craft are able to han­dle decades of ser­vice, an­a­lysts say, a new wave of fighter jets specif­i­cally de­signed to be ro­tated out of ser­vice much quicker of­fers a host of strate­gic ad­van­tages, not the least of which is sav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in tax­payer money.

“What we kept dis­cov­er­ing is long-term sus­tain­ment is a big driver in cost,” re­tired Air Force Gen. Her­bert “Hawk” J. Carlisle, now pres­i­dent and CEO of the Na­tional De­fense In­dus­trial As­so­ci­a­tion, said in an in­ter­view. “We can build re­ally good air­planes that do re­ally well for 2,000 hours with great tech­nol­ogy and then spin off of that and cre­ate the next one.”

Lock­heed Mar­tin and other top de­fense con­trac­tors are sure to con­tinue play­ing a lead­ing role, Mr. Carlisle said, but the rise of smaller, more nim­ble com­pa­nies will be key to mak­ing the new ap­proach a re­al­ity. A com­pany tasked with de­sign­ing a plane that in­cor­po­rates a new weapon or new sur­veil­lance equip­ment with the knowl­edge that the air­craft won’t be in ser­vice for three or four decades could ul­ti­mately pro­vide prod­ucts that the Air Force couldn’t get un­der its past ac­qui­si­tion strate­gies, an­a­lysts said.

Lessons learned

The great­est chal­lenge con­fronting the Air Force, an­a­lysts say, is stream­lin­ing the process as much as pos­si­ble so that if mul­ti­ple planes are in ro­ta­tion at any given time, the ser­vice is able to jug­gle each air­craft’s spe­cific needs.

“Even if you can rapidly build dif­fer­ent air­frames, there’s still the is­sue of sup­port­ing them. A pro­lif­er­a­tion of plat­forms could mul­ti­ply the chal­lenge of keep­ing suf­fi­cient spare parts for each on hand and en­sur­ing you have main­tain­ers with the right tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise avail­able,” said re­tired Air Force Gen. Charles Dun­lap Jr., now ex­ec­u­tive director at the Cen­ter on Law, Ethics and Na­tional Se­cu­rity at Duke Uni­ver­sity. “Ob­vi­ously, to make this work, low main­te­nance would have to be de­signed into the plat­form, and ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies like 3D print­ing would have to be shown to be re­li­able sources of re­place­ment parts when and where they would be needed.”

The Air Force’s ini­tial Cen­tury Se­ries pro­gram, which pro­duced six types of air­craft from 1952 to 1964, of­fers valu­able lessons on how to al­lo­cate re­sources wisely and avoid spend­ing money on air­craft that aren’t serv­ing any real pur­pose. Although the Cen­tury Se­ries pro­gram suc­ceeded in ramp­ing up pro­duc­tion times, few of the planes proved worth­while in the air cam­paign in Viet­nam, crit­ics say.

“When we ac­tu­ally got into com­bat in Viet­nam, we found the most use­ful of those air­planes was the F-100 … but over­all we had the wrong air­craft for the wrong war,” said Mr. Hal­lion, the Air Force his­to­rian. “I like the idea of ac­cel­er­at­ing ac­qui­si­tion and pro­duc­ing mul­ti­ple types. But if we do so, we should make sure those types are re­ally go­ing to be use­ful for us.”

An­other ma­jor ob­sta­cle fac­ing the ini­tia­tive is the pace of the fed­eral govern­ment and the of­ten te­dious ac­qui­si­tion process in­side the Pen­tagon, both of which have grown slower in some ways since the 1950s. The only way the Dig­i­tal Cen­tury Se­ries makes sense, they say, is if both pro­cesses move much faster with greater co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Pen­tagon lead­ers and both cham­bers of Congress.

“Plan­ners also need to sur­vey the ex­ist­ing ac­qui­si­tion sys­tem to make sure it could keep up with the swift award of con­tracts, some­thing that would seem to be an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the pro­gram. If changes in the law are needed, get­ting Congress on board as soon as pos­si­ble is vi­tal,” Mr. Dun­lap said.


The F-22 Rap­tor (top) and the F-15 Ea­gle pro­vided Lock­heed Mar­tin and McDon­nell Dou­glas, re­spec­tively, with lu­cra­tive con­tracts. The Air Force now plans to make room for smaller, more nim­ble com­pa­nies, along with the lead­ing de­fense con­trac­tors.

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