Big Programs Face Big Milestones

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Military aircraft programs are, in a sense, the modern equivalent of the pyramids, massive projects that help define national pride and prowess. Many billions of dollars, tens of thousands of high-tech jobs, and the fate of some of America's premier corporations ride on their success or failure.

The rapid contraction of the military-industrial complex since the end of the Cold War and the relative paucity of new programs have only increased the tremendous stakes and risks involved in such programs as the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Air Force's F-22 Raptor, and the tri-service Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

With a combined price tag of approximately $340 billion over the next 20 years, these three premier military aircraft programs have raised the question of whether the pharaohs of Capitol Hill are willing to drain the national treasury to see them constructed.

All three programs face significant milestones in the next year that should give an indication of how much support they have in the administration and Congress. The Pentagon will soon decide, for instance, whether to award a five-year, full scale production contract for 222 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters to defense contractor Boeing. Eventually the Navy plans to buy 548 Super Hornets for an estimated $46 billion. Based on findings by the Pentagon's top testing officer that the Navy can fix serious vibration problems with the Super Hornet's wings, Defense Secretary William Cohen has certified that the program is ready for full production.

Congress appears to support that view. Two of its defense committees, for instance, have endorsed the Navy's $2.9 billion request to buy 42 Super Hornets in the 2001 fiscal year. A third defense committee approved money for 39 aircraft.

The Super Hornet ran into some flak this year, however, from the General Accounting Office. In a report released this spring, GAO recommended postponing the production contract for the Super Hornet until Boeing can fix the wing problems-which are reportedly serious enough to damage missiles carried under the wing. "Testing disclosed support structure cracks, loose screws, broken springs, delamination of the weapon's fins, and guidance and control failures," according to the GAO report. These flaws violate "a key legislative criterion that the plane's wing has a stable design."

Last year the Air Force's F-22 Raptor program passed an important milestone when the Pentagon announced contracts worth $800 million for a third and fourth F-22 "production and test aircraft" from the contractor team of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney, and long-lead parts for six more aircraft. That announcement essentially launched a $63 billion program to produce 339 aircraft over the next 16 years.

However, the eye-popping price tag of roughly $187 million per aircraft (including all research and development plus procurement costs) has caused some lawmakers to blanch. Since the plane's inception in the mid-1980s, Congress has already cut the planned production run for the F-22 from 750 (or more than 1,000 if a once-contemplated naval version is included) to just 339 aircraft, not enough to replace the Air Force's current fleet of F-15 air superiority fighters. This year, three of the four defense committees in Congress have approved funding to continue F-22 testing, buy the next 10 aircraft and make a down payment on 16 more.

The Joint Strike Fighter represents nothing less than the most expensive aviation program in history. The Pentagon plans to spend around $200 billion (in today's dollars) over the next 20 years to buy 2,852 of the stealthy fighter bombers for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing for the JSF contract and are scheduled to fly their first "concept demonstrator" aircraft this summer, with a winner to be selected next spring.

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