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  • 25 Years Of The F-22
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 1:34 PM on Oct 31, 2011

    It's a rich season for combat aviation anniversaries.

    Last week was the tenth anniversary of the Joint Strike Fighter system development and demonstration contract. And 25 years ago today, the USAF announced that Lockheed and Northrop had won the two contracts for the demonstration-validation, or Dem-Val, phase of the Advanced Tactical Fighter program.

    blog post photo

    It was the culmination of a tumultuous era in the US fighter business. Although the F-15 and F-16 were new, the approach of the MiG-29, Su-27 and MiG-31 had much of the TacAir enterprise in a tizzy. "A high-low mix," somebody commented, "with their low equivalent to our high."

    The Reagan administration was ready to spend whatever it took to face down the Soviet bear.  By late 1982, what had been fairly low-level studies of a post-teen-series fighter had coalesced into a real program with real money.

    The USAF program office looked at lessons from the 1970s and concluded that the long pole in the tent would be propulsion -- so the first task was to estimate the weight and speed requirements for the new fighter, which would give the engine designers their own performance target. A formal RFP for the Joint Advanced Fighter Engine was issued in May 1983.

    Everyone agreed on the watchwords "STOL, stealth and supercruise", but how much of each could be combined in a practical fighter was another issue completely. (Fortunately, the issue has now been settled. Yeah, right.)

    There were seven competitors -- Lockheed, Northrop, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Grumman and Rockwell.

    The first two had full-scale stealth programs under way, and had flown stealth hardware, and they played that card for all it was worth to beat their main challengers -- Macs and GD, who had delivered every one of the USAF's supersonic combat aircraft since 1965.

    The result was a program that played out in two phases. When the first responses to the ATF RFP came in, late in 1985, it was quickly apparent that the Lockheed and Northrop designs were different:  they promised both all-aspect, relatively wideband stealth and high speed, where the others relied on frontal-aspect stealth.

    The USAF sent all the proposals back for more work on stealth. Initially, the plan was for Dem-Val to include as many as four competitors, doing a lot of ground testing and laboratory work, but not actually flying prototypes. But stealth involved more technical risk, and the Packard commission, convened to improve procurement outcomes, had reported in 1984 with a strong recommendation to fly prototypes.

    The USAF changed its mind and announced that Dem-Val would be limited to two winners and include flying prototypes. Most of the competitors saw the writing on the wall: The top five competitors formed teams, each including one of the stealth experts.

    The USAF had also imposed limits on acquisition cost ($35 million flyaway in 1982 dollars) and operating cost (no higher than an F-15) and a target clean take-off weight of 50,000 pounds. 750 aircraft would be built.

    (At around the same time, the US Navy was starting the A-12, with the goal of building 858 Navy/Marine aircraft and then replacing USAF F-111s, and Northrop was working on a 132-aircraft B-2 program.)

    Let's just say that those targets were not attained.

    That teaches an important lesson: There are no overruns, only underestimates and external forces -- and in defense, the latter are usually less important.

    The estimates were wishes. The Pentagon had cut the unit cost from $40 million at the last moment, but it meant about as much as Winston Smith's estimates of boot production in 1984. There was no authority behind it.

    Simply put: Nobody in 1986 had a ghost of a scintilla of an earthly clue how much ATF would cost.

    Lightweight stealth surface, edge and aperture treatments that could survive a supersonic environment were in the laboratory at best. X-band active arrays were at the same position. How to detect targets without being detected? All anyone knew was that it would take a bloody big computer. And Lockheed won its contract with a design that no amount of flight control technology could make fly pointy-end-first.

    However, the costs were there, baked into the requirement, the state of the art, labor rates and other factors. Nobody, without colossal luck or supernatural genius, could meet them for a price below a certain point. The real cost could not be changed except by changing requirements, but that would have meant scrapping everything and starting over (the only major change during Dem-Val was the dumping of STOL and thrust reversal) and the further the program proceeded, the less anyone wanted to do that.

    Want to learn more? You can get the $50 version from AIAA, or (literally, it seems) my two bits' worth.

    Tags: ar99, tacair, F-22

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