06 December 2007

U.S. Military Aircraft Development News

* The U.S. Air Force is having technical problems getting the F-35 aka the Joint Strike Fighter, to work.

Electrical problems forced an emergency landing and many month delay in the program in May 2007.

There are software problems too, such that:

flying in 2012 with the JSF may be safe and the JSF can be used as a plane to fly around. But, the several software modules for weapons system integration will not be ready. Ground attack capability is the priority, so early-build F-35s will primarily be "bomb trucks" until the additional software modules can be tested and loaded. Air superiority capabilities will be restricted, and completed only after 2015. This means that full multi-role capability is possible by 2016 at the earliest, if and only if no major problems occur in development and testing of the weapon systems software.

There is also a problem with the F-35C (carrier based) version's engine:

The F-35C naval variant's Hamilton Sundstrand power generator was mistakenly designed to only 65% of the required electric output. To accommodate the required increase, it will also be necessary to redesign the gearbox for the standard Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, which will be fitted into the conventional F-35A version as well as the naval F-35C. The contract announced by the US Department of Defense in August 2007 says that this engine update won't be ready for use until the end of 2009, which is almost the beginning of low-rate initial production. . . . Although it seemed probable that last October the JSF would fly again, a new problem arose. During a test run of the F135 engine, part of the engine was blown up by overheating. On November 14, 2007, an eyewitness took pictures of the transportation of a new F135 engine. The date for test flight number 20 (of the scheduled 5,000 test flights) is still unknown.

Obviously, these problems have put the program behind schedule and over budget:

In an article that Bloomberg News publishes on August 31, 2007, it is announced that Lockheed Martin is exceeding the budget on the first phase of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The manufacturer warns that the reserves will be spent by the end of 2008, unless cuts are made. Lockheed Martin . . . wants to build 2 fewer prototypes, and skip 800 of the 5,000 planned test flights. This after only 18 successful and 1 almost fatal testflight in half a year's time.

Because, obviously, if you don't run test flights, the test flights can't fail and therefore the plane must be safe.

Notably, these problems do not involve the technologically amibitious parts of the F-35 program, such as stealth technology and verticle takeoff and landing for the F-35B version that is to replace the AV-8B Harrier jump jet currently in service with the United States Marines. The problems are with nuts and bolts issues that are part and parcel of all of our existing fighter aircraft.

* Air Force wonks are starting to make lukewarm concessions that maybe a new counter-insurgency oriented plane might make sense for the Air Force. The last was the A-10 Warthog, designed in the 1970s. The A-10s are being upgraded to the A-10C model which will give it sensor capability comparable to other U.S. fighters. But, there is no replacement on the drawing boards. Originally, the F-35A was supposed to fill that role, despite the fact that the multi-purpose plane isn't well optimized for that role and the fact that most U.S. Air Force combat missions are suitable for counterinsurgency planes.

Congress may have already decided the issue with an earmark found in the 2008 US defense appropriations bill.

Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas, has earmarked $3 million in research and development funds for the AT-6B, the Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft product that is often marketed as a COIN aircraft. The funds have been allocated to the Air National Guard.

Other would-be competitors are the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and the US Aircraft A-67 Dragon.

The AT-6B Texan

The EMB-314 Super Tucano

The A-67 Dragon

* The Air Force is working on developing a new manned nuclear weapon carrying stealth bomber, similar in concept to the existing B-2 bomber.

One defense analyst suggests the nuclear requirement can add as much as 50% to a program's price because nuclear delivery systems require a high level of redundancy in communications, command and control, and hardening against various electromagnetic pulses.

The next-generation bomber is expected to be fielded in 2018. To meet that deadline, the Air Force plans to begin a competition for a final design in Fiscal 2009. Although the B-2 remains a highly stealthy aircraft, war planners worry that the proliferation of advanced, integrated air defense systems will limit its ability to penetrate into potentially troublesome regions, such as China or Iran. The new system will incorporate stealth technologies refined after designing the F-22 and F-35, making it the stealthiest aircraft ever fielded, says Maj. Gen. David Clary, vice chief of Air Combat Command. . . .

Going nuclear also indicates that a pilot will be on board for at least the first variant of the future system, USAF Secretary Michael Wynne acknowledges. . . . Wynne made his comments during a Nov. 28 speech at a conference here hosted by Credit Suisse and Aviation Week.

This squelches the hopes of unmanned vehicle advocates, who had expected the bomber to be remotely piloted at the outset. But this doesn't rule out an unmanned variant of the bomber, according to Wynne.

He says the entire bomber fleet will likely include the hardening necessary for the nuclear mission. A later variant that would be remotely piloted could handle a separate mission. This option is attractive to Air Force planners because it offers the ability to cycle through multiple pilots at remote bases, extending mission endurance two- or threefold.

One of the missions envisioned for the future bomber is to loiter without detection behind enemy lines and pick off targets or collect intelligence as needed. This, however, would require endurance and a high degree of stealth at all angles.

Is this really an urgent priority?

1 comment:

Dave Barnes said...

A decent COIN aircraft is a priority. Of course, the ideal aeroplane is already available: the Warthog A-10.

We just need to reactivate the production of these awesome war machines.