Features

February 1, 2010  

Fifth fight

Manufacturers argue over what constitutes a next-gen fighter jet

What defines a fighter jet as fifth-generation is the focus of much political wrangling, tussles over jobs and disputes between Europe and America.

The European defense consortium Eurofighter says its Typhoon is a fifth-generation fighter, along with the F-22 Raptor, which is scheduled to end production in 2011. But Eurofighter argues that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II, on which the Pentagon and nine partner nations, including the U.K., Italy and the Netherlands, are placing their bets, isn’t a fifth-generation fighter. Furthermore, Eurofighter doesn’t even consider the F-35 a fighter.

The Obama administration decided to terminate production of the twin-engine F-22 fighter, built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, despite desires by the Air Force and program supporters for more of these airplanes. Instead, the administration favors shifting acquisition to the new smaller, cheaper single-engine F-35. While not as capable as the F-22 in performance, the F-35 has most of the F-22’s attributes and can be used by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy — as well as many U.S. allies, some of whom are participating in the component and fuselage construction to the level of 10 percent of the funding cost.

The controversial decision to end F-22 production was based on the doctrine espoused by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates is a proponent of increasing the inventory of weapon systems that are suited to counterinsurgency wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to weapons that were designed to fightthe former Soviet Union.

But choosing instead to rely on the cheaper if somewhat less capable F-35 over the F-22 opened the door for Eurofighter to downplay the F-35 as a fifth-generation fighter.

“Only the Eurofighter and the F-22 can be considered fifth-generation,” a Eurofighter company official said. “We don’t consider the F-35 to be a fighter. It’s not a fighter at all and it’s not fifth-generation.”

The F-35 is also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and therein lies Eurofighter’s reasoning. The European rival claims the F-35 is primarily a “strike” aircraft, designed for tactical bombing and close air support, rather than a “fighter” despite the “F” in JSF. In a presentation Eurofighter uses before interested parties, the company first compares the historic Douglas A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft with the swift and deadly Lockheed P-51 fighter. From there, Eurofighter cites attack aircraft such as the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the Grumman A-6, the LTV A-7 Corsair and the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Warthog as the antecedents to the F-35.

Antecedents to the F-22, according to Eurofighter, in addition to the P-51, are the F-86, F-100, F-4/F-5 and the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.

Eurofighter also displays a “fifth-generation fighter checklist” and argues that the F-35 doesn’t meet the criteria. The checklist includes very low observable (VLO) stealth, supercruise capability, sustained supersonic operations and a number of operational features. Eurofighter maintains that the F-35 doesn’t have most of these.

Lockheed Martin strongly disagrees with the Eurofighter assessment. So does aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. He calls the F-35 a single-engine F-22 that has all the fifth-generation features without the high-end performance.

Eurofighter sticks to its guns, however. “If you want to see what the market sees about fifth-generation, it speaks to the F-22. Global survivability is one of the points — the ability to fight at the upper end of the flight envelope or to have the ability to bring a heavy complement of weapons,” a company official said. “The Typhoon is much more compliant to the fifth-generation than the JSF.”

Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin vice president of F-35 business development and customer engagement, says the F-35 is unquestionably fifth-generation, “conceived and designed as a new generation of aircraft, separated from the F-15/16/18. It is VLO stealth, enabled to penetrate denied airspace.”

O’Bryan said the F-35 employs sensor fusion, which is the ability to blend a wide variety of electronic warfare and other sensors into a single view for the pilot as well as personnel aboard ships and commanders in the field. It has Internet-enabled operations, and carries weapons internally, unlike the fourth-generation F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, which have wing-mounted weapons that inhibit stealth capability. The F-35 also has non-kinetic and non-lethal capabilities

O’Bryan also said the F-35 provides more flexibility than any aircraft being procured by the U.S., being a multi-service fighter that will be operated by the Marines, Navy and Air Force.

Lockheed Martin also points out that the F-35 has technology that is 10 years newer than the F-22, which entered service in December 2005. The F-35 is to enter service in 2012. Eurofighter entered service in 2003.

O’Bryan and Aboulafia argue that the F-35 has widespread support attesting to its fifth-generation qualities. Nine nations joined in the F-35’s system development and demonstration: the U.S., U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia. Partnership entitles these countries to bid for work on a best-value basis, and participate in the aircraft’s development. Israel and Singapore also have agreed to join the program as a security cooperation participants. Foreign sales of the F-35 are permitted, something that wasn’t true for the F-22.

Yet the F-35 is not without its controversies. The U.K., perhaps the staunchest U.S. ally, is buying the airplane but the U.S. doesn’t want to give Britain the software source code out of fear the code will eventually make its way to other countries. The British aren’t happy about this.

Aboulafia said that under the Bush administration, there was a bilateral agreement that the U.S. and U.K. would share this sort of data. Why is this important? Because of “operational sovereignty,” Aboulafia said. “Britain wants it. Israel wants it. All the non-U.S. customers want it.”

O’Bryan says this isn’t an issue. “The U.S. government has guaranteed operational sovereignty. It is being overplayed.”

All the debate over what is and what isn’t fifth-generation overlooks a larger procurement issue, says aerospace consultant Jim McAleese of McAleese and Associates. Gates is determined to change the way procurements happen and how programs are paid for. For Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program, McAleese says this means:

å Agreeing to a fixed-price fee from 2010 versus the previous cost-plus approach, where only Lockheed Martin’s fee was at risk.

å Renegotiating the incentive fee for the 30 aircraft scheduled this year. For every $1 million Lockheed Martin saves — or goes over budget — the company receives or is penalized 30 cents on the dollar. Defense Department procurement chief Ashton Carter is more aggressive, seeking a 40 percent figure as a bonus or a penalty.

å Asking Lockheed Martin to bill its test lab work as a capital asset versus a fixed cost basis.

The F-35 has had cost overruns in the developmentstage, but O’Bryan said “in production we are currently under selected acquisition profile for cost.” Still, the Pentagon threatened late last year to take program management away from the company.

“Lockheed Martin representatives met with senior DoD officials on Dec. 17 to discuss the status of corrective actions implemented since the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) conducted an Earned Value Management System (EVMS) audit at the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth in 2007,” Lockheed spokesman John Kent said. “During the meeting, the corporation was asked to provide additional information on its implementation of all EVMS corrective action plans, which we will do in the near future. Lockheed Martin is committed to demonstrating full compliance with the DCMA’s expectations of our EVMS implementation plan and intends to complete its EVMS implementation expeditiously.”

Aboulafia believes the F-35 program is largely safe from continuing Defense Department budget challenges, however. “It has a terrific industrial footprint and a strong bipartisan legacy. It is the only game in town with the F-22 dead.”

The Gates doctrine that the armed services must get away from the idea of fighting the “last war,” in this case the Cold War, in favor of counterinsurgency, was a factor in canceling the F-22 in favor of the F-35. Boeing argues that its F-15s and F/A-18s can handle the jobs required for either types of warfare for the foreseeable future because of what it calls the “90 percent solution,” or meeting nearly all of the defense requirements for a lower cost.

Indeed, Boeing has announced plans to update the F-15 into what it calls the “Silent Eagle.” This version would include improvements in stealth through special coatings and treatments on the aircraft and redesigned conformal fuel tanks that would allow for an internal weapons carriage. Survivability improvements include a BAE Systems Digital Electronic Warfare System working in concert with the Raytheon Advanced Electronic Scanning Array radar, Boeing said in a statement. First flight of the Silent Eagle is scheduled for the first quarter of this year.

A Boeing official said in an e-mail statement that “any assessment of cost-effective tactical-aircraft design centers on the ability to successfully carry out a particular set of missions in a particular environment. Environment will include geography and political considerations, as well a particular set of threats.

“Because warfare requires adequate force structure, the element of cost must be added. The cost element includes the cost to develop, the cost to produce, the cost to maintain and the inherent lifespan of the platform.”

The Boeing official said “the effectiveness of one’s air force then will be determined by the degree to which that Air Force has (1) adequate numbers of aircraft, (2) with adequate capabilities to accomplish required missions, (3) while facing a particular set of threats, and (4) operating over the distances and in the conditions unique to that nation.”

Boeing believes its fighter platforms are “90-95 percent solutions for required missions,” with the same principles at work. “The value of an 80-90-95 percent solution approach to designing a multi-role aircraft is that it enables these four key factors to be addressed with balance over the long-term,” the official said.

O’Bryan downplayed Boeing’s effort to upgrade the F-15, however. He notes that few countries or services if any are buying the F-15 or F/A-18 beyond the current orders.

SCOTT HAMILTON is an aerospace consultant at Leeham Co. (www.leeham.net.)

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