I thought I'd give the JSF a rest for today and talk about the classics. Specifically, a minor mythological figure named Procrustes. Spiritual ancestor of Basil Fawlty, Procrustes owned an iron bed where he would invite travellers to lie down. If the guest was too short for the bed, Procrustes stretched him on the rack; if he was too tall, he would amputate the excess length.
Procrustes was killed by Theseus, who was a distant cousin of Hercules, which brings us to the issue of airlift.
As we've discussed here over the past year or so, the emerging issue with air mobility is that Army equipment such as Stryker and the FCS vehicles won't fit in a C-130. The official solution is an all-new aircraft capable of vertical or ultra-short take-off and landing - JHL or JFTL - but it can't be done for many years, even if it's affordable.
The result is likely to be a need for a stop-gap, and given the scary cost of an all-new system it could continue to stop that gap for a long time. In this scenario, the part of Procrustes is played by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both attempting to stretch or chop the requirement to fit the hardware they have available.
Boeing is using the rack, extending the requirement to fit the proposed C-17B, with new flaps, auxiliary centerline landing gear (the C-17 is hard on runways), a 13 per cent thrust boost and other changes. (It's about a $4 billion development program.) It suits Boeing very well: not only does the company see a USAF need for 40-60 C-17Bs, but the new version would not fly until 2015 - so in order to get there at all, the USAF would have to keep buying C-17As through 2015-2016, which conveniently supplies enough aircraft to replace the C-5A.
The downside is that the C-17B will be expensive and (by tactical standards) a gas hog - well over twice the size of the A400M. Unsurprisingly, Boeing's "spider chart" that compares the C-17B with the A400M does not mention life-cycle fuel costs. Neither is the company publicising the operational empty weight impact of the modifications. The C-17 is not exactly Kate Moss as it is, and - at a guess - the changes will add another 10,000 pounds at least.
On the other side, with the ax and saw, is Lockheed Martin, proposing a "C-130XL" with a 65,000 pound payload - just enough for one FCS vehicle or one Stryker - and a new cross section. The idea, the company says, is "A400M capability with a C-130J price tag."
It's an interesting idea, but Lockheed Martin concedes that the XL would need new propulsion systems and it is possible that the wing would have to be redesigned to take the weight and power loads. The result could be the fixed-wing answer to the CH-53K - which, as we know, is a simple derivative of the CH-53E with new engines, transmission, main and tail rotors, flight control system, avionics and fuselage. What could possibly go wrong? After all, the C-130J itself was a straightforward C-130 derivative with off-the-shelf engines, and that program went off just...
Changing the subject in a hurry, what's interesting is that both companies are moving their products into A400M territory: Boeing by addressing shorter (and perhaps more importantly) softer landing grounds, Lockheed by expanding payload weight and size limits.
With EADS looking for a US partner - and a deal with Boeing being in the cats-and-dogs-living-together realm - has Lockheed Martin looked in that direction? "No formal discussions," says air mobility vice-president Jim Grant. "But we're friends. We talk all the time. They probably want to get in the air first, and they don't have production slots for a while."
Paris 2009? Watch this space.
photos: Bill Sweetman, Lockheed Martin