Aircraft Fleet Showing Its Age

A chart plotting the average age of the Defense Department's tactical aircraft fleet has caused a stir in the Pentagon's E-Ring. According to its projections, the average DoD aircraft in 1996 is already more than 10 years old, or roughly one-half of its projected service life. Given funding and modernization trends, the chart shows the entire fleet aging rapidly as the new century approaches. This is troubling news to DoD planners.

"The lines are all heading in the wrong direction," says a senior DoD official. "Everything is getting older." According to statistics released by the Air Force, the average age of its fighters will double from 9.6 years to 19.2 years between 1996 and 2005. "As soon as the average age of weapons gets beyond the one-half mark of their expected service lives, you're on a slippery slope for the entire fleet," says the official. "It takes much more money to buy average age back when you've let it get past that limit."

Those concerns explain why even in the midst of a procurement free fall, aircraft continue to dominate the Pentagon's modernization plan. Indeed, of the six high-priority "leap ahead" weapons systems identified by DoD in the fiscal 1997 budget and defense plan for future years, five are aircraft programs: the multiservice Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, the Navy's F/A-18 E/F strike fighter, the Marine Corps' V-22 vertical takeoff and landing transporter, and the Army's RAH-66 Comanche helicopter.

Not only is the fleet aging, but its importance to overall Defense strategy cannot be minimized. Since the Gulf War, air power has become the key to modern warfare.

"We've been criticized by some for an over-emphasis on tactical air, with people pointing out that we already have air superiority, so why do we need to put so much emphasis on air? It's because we believe that everything we'll do depends on air dominance," said Defense Secretary William Perry at a recent briefing. "During Desert Storm, the Air Force basically shut down the Iraqi Air Force, allowing all our ground and other forces to operate without any interference. That's what's called air dominance. We had it in Desert Storm, we liked it, and we want to continue to have it in any future military conflict."

Advanced Tactical Fighter

The key to dominating the air over future battlefields will be the Air Force F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, now in development and destined to replace today's F-15 fighters. The stealthy, F-22 aircraft is designed to penetrate enemy air defenses and achieve first-look, first-kill capability against multiple targets. It is being developed by a team consisting of second-ranked aircraft contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., sixth-ranked Boeing Co., and the Pratt and Whitney engine-making division of third-ranked United Technologies.

The fiscal 1997 budget includes $2 billion for continued research, development and testing of the F-22, with an additional $11 billion for production of the initial 40 aircraft by 2001. The planned purchase of 442 F-22s will cost an estimated at $74 billion. Initial operation of the aircraft is planned for early next century.

According to DoD officials, the F-22 offers a prime example of the need for advanced planning and steady funding in modern weapons development.

"We started the first planning concepts for the F-22 back in 1975, and the first squadron won't be operational until 2004," says a senior DoD official. "That's nearly 30 years later. The half point in its service life will come 45 years after initial concept. That's like starting World War II using Wright Brothers planes."

Joint Strike Fighter

The last major military aircraft program still up for grabs is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), formerly known as the Joint Advanced Strike Fighter. Funded roughly equally by the Air Force and Navy, this program will support development of an aircraft to replace the Air Force F-16, the Navy F-14, and the Marine Corps AV-8B and F/A-18s.

The JSF program is still in its early developmental stages, and the question of whether one aircraft can satisfy so many customers is still open. The "all things to all people approach" will involve developing several demonstrator aircraft to explore different approaches to meeting the services' various needs. Then, prototype aircraft will be developed to help the services decide on the ultimate design of the fighters.

The fiscal 1997 Defense budget includes $582 million for continued JSF development, with plans to spend another $3.2 billion in the next five years. Three industry teams are competing for two contracts to develop JSF aircraft, led by top-ranked McDonnell Douglas Corp., second-ranked Lockheed Martin Corp., and sixth-ranked Boeing Co.

Competition for the contracts is fierce because the stakes are enormous. According to a study conducted by Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, the JSF could eventually replace nearly 3,000 U.S. tactical aircraft, and between 2,000 and 3,000 F-16s and F/A-18s worldwide. Combined, those aircraft could represent a nearly $1 trillion market, virtually ensuring that the winner of the program will become world's dominant military aircraft manufacturer.

F/A-18 E/F Hornet

After the debacle of the canceled A-12 bomber, the Navy was left with a fleet of aging A-6 bombers on its aircraft carrier decks with no replacement on the horizon. Rather than wait for a completely new aircraft, the service decided on the F/A-18E/F Hornet, a significantly improved version of the F/A-18C/D model with enhanced range, payload, wingspan and survivability.

The twin-engine, multi-mission aircraft will conduct ground strike, interdiction, close air support, fighter escort and fleet air defense missions. The new Hornet will replace not only F/A-18C/D model, but partially replace A-6E bombers and F-14A air superiority aircraft.

The fiscal 1997 Defense budget includes about $2 billion for production of 12 aircraft, and funding for more F/A-18 E/Fs in 1998. DoD's future spending plans include more than $80 billion to buy 1,000 of the fighters by 2015. Prime contractors on the program are top-ranked McDonnell Douglas Corp., teamed with fifth-ranked engine manufacturer General Electric Co.

The V-22 Osprey

There exists perhaps no better testament to the resilience of major weapons programs once they are begun-and to the support the Marine Corps commands on Capitol Hill-than the V-22 Osprey.

Targeted for termination by at least one Defense secretary and many powerful DoD civilians, the aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a prop-plane has exhibited more lives than a cat. All of which is good news for contractors Bell Helicopter division of Textron, which ranks seventh among aircraft manufacturers, and Boeing Vertol. The fiscal 1997 budget contains $600 million for initial production of four aircraft, and another $577 million for continued research and development.

Given advances in modern anti-ship missiles that make ships involved in close-in amphibious operations extremely vulnerable, the Marine Corps sees the V-22 as a critical link in its plans to fight future wars. With its added speed and range, the V-22 can carry Marines from ships based far off shore deep into an enemy's rear or flank. The Ospreys are expected to deploy with U.S. forces beginning in 2001.

Over the life of the V-22 acquisition program, expected to last until 2022, the Marine Corps hopes to buy 425 aircraft, with the Navy purchasing an additional 48. The Special Operations Command is nearly as excited about the aircraft as the Marine Corps and is expected to buy an additional 52 V-22s to transport Special Forces teams. Abroad, demand for the Osprey is thought to be as large as 600 aircraft, according to officials of Boeing Vertol.

The Comanche Helicopter

If the V-22 is the aircraft that won't die, the RAH-66 Comanche is the helicopter that just can't seem to get a start on life. Designed to replace the Army's rapidly aging fleet of OH-58 and AH-1 helicopters, the armed reconnaissance aircraft has been continually pushed into the background as the Army and Defense Department have struggled with funding shortfalls. In fiscal 1997, the Pentagon will spend $289 million for continued research and development on the program, with an additional $1.7 billion planned for the 1998-2001 time frame. No production is expected in the next five years.

Nevertheless, the Comanche successfully completed its first flight earlier this year-albeit without many of the weapons systems it will eventually carry. The aircraft is being developed by a joint venture between third-ranked United Technologies' Sikorsky Aircraft Division, and Boeing Vertol. Engine development is being carried out by Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Co., a partnership of 14th-ranked Allied Signal Aerospace and Allison Engine Co.

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