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The Emperor's new clothes

Are future combat aircraft being priced out of the market?

Douglas Barrie/LONDON

THE NEXT GENERATION OF combat aircraft is now in the process of being developed, but the costs of such projects are becoming so astronomical that the limited numbers procured will leave their operating air forces effectively naked.

Purchasing a combat aircraft is a precarious business, and is becoming increasingly more so. As development cycles and service lives of aircraft are extended, then the military, economic and financial parameters which affect an aircraft at its inception are in danger of becoming obsolete within the aircraft's life time.

There are effectively two main contributors to the cost of the aircraft - the price of design and development, and the cumulative cost of maintaining the aircraft throughout an increasingly long service life.

Until relatively recently, the emphasis on cost focused almost solely on the first half of this equation, that of development. Even a cursory glance at the way in which costs have spiraled reveals why.

A First World War Sopwith Camel cost some £1,000 ($1,600), with development totaling £3,000. A Second World War Hawker Hurricane cost £5,000, with development totaling £25,000. The Eurofighter 20000 will cost £42.4 million, with development totaling over £10 billion.

UNDERSTANDABLE COSTS

Given the gulf in capability between the Camel and a Eurofighter 2000, then the concomitant gap in development expenditure is understandable. What is drawing more attention with the generation of combat aircraft now in development, however, is controlling "through life costs" as a means of recouping part of the vast investment during the development cycle. As Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, head of research and development with British Aerospace Defence points out, one of the key issues is now "improving affordability, balanced with performance".

Determining what is "affordable" in the case of combat aircraft is changeable. What is well within the budget of a first-world power will be completely beyond that of a developing state. Within both of these brackets, there will also be a sliding scale of acceptable cost-versus-requirement, married to the purchasing state's geopolitical outlook. A country which perceives itself to be under threat, to have expansionist policies, or to have global interests, will spend more on combat aircraft than one which exists in a stable international environment.

Perhaps the best rule of thumb in considering the issue of what constitutes "affordability" is: producing a combat aircraft which meets an air force's requirement at a politically acceptable cost, procured in numbers which will allow that air force to prosecute its task successfully.

The design determinants for a future combat aircraft constitute an increasingly complex matrix of factors - some based on the perceived threat, effectively what the "opposition" will be flying, and with what weaponry it will be operating. This is predicated on just which state the "opposition" might be, and under what circumstances might a future conflict be fought.

The "Cold War" gave some comfort to the countries involved, because everybody knew who their enemies were, and had a good idea about their equipment and what they had in the pipeline. This security has now been lost. Western war games no longer have the friendly forces facing the "Red" team - far more neutral colours now tend to be picked for any aggressor.

For the combat-aircraft procurer (an air force) and the manufacturer, the geopolitical changes in central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s have set an array of problems to be addressed. Not surprisingly, many of the combat-aircraft projects conceived towards the end of the Cold War have failed to survive, as defence budgets have tumbled.

RETHINKING PROGRAMMES

In the USA and Russia, numerous future-combat-aircraft programmes have ended because of the changed strategic environment and fiscal prudence. The US Air Force's Northrop B-2 strategic-penetration bomber provided the ability to hunt Soviet mobile intercontinental ballistic-missile launch platforms as part of a nuclear exchange.

Some 133 B-2s were originally required, but, as strategic perceptions changed, then so did the requirement. The USAF will now receive only 20 B-2s, each at a fly-away cost of $865 million. It is also being re-rolled as a "conventional" tactical-strike aircraft, threatening to make it the world's most expensive "mud mover".

The US Navy lost the General Dynamics A-12 stealthy strike aircraft, its supposed reduced-cost follow-on, the A/F-X, and the E-X next-generation airborne early-warning aircraft. The US Army's Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche reconnaissance/attack-helicopter project has been heavily cut, while its Advanced Cargo Aircraft looks increasingly likely to be met, if at all, by an existing design.

Russian programmes fared no better. Mikoyan's Project 701 heavy-fighter programme to replace the MiG-31 Foxhound was cancelled, as were hypersonic-research programmes. Yakovlev lost the Yak-41 Freestyle supersonic vertical/short take-off and landing programme, as well as the Yak-44 airborne early-warning aircraft, while Sukhoi's proposed replacement for the Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-17/22 Fitter, dubbed the Su-37, also fell apart.

In terms of strategic aircraft, production of the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack strategic nuclear bomber was cut back severely, while a Sukhoi medium-range bomber programme, the T-60S, faces an uncertain future. Russia's army aviation, is having to make do with a trickle of Kamov Ka-50 Hokum attack helicopters, although it is now trying to procure the Mil Mi-28.

There are even rumblings that Mikoyan's Article 1.42, intended to replace the SukhoiSu-27 Flanker as the Russian air force's main front-line fighter, may not be "affordable". Russia is faced with the problem that, as its economy moves from the planned to the free market, then prices will inevitably escalate. In 1994, a Su-27 cost the Russian air force what is in Western terms a ridiculously cheap $2.36 million. The Article 1.42, should it ever enter production, will cost considerably more.

For those programmes, which have survived the budgetary scythe, it has become doubly important to maintain a tight control on costs. The public perception of a "peace dividend" may have faded, but the perception has grown stronger that "profligate" defence expenditure is no longer required to ensure national security.

The four-nation Eurofighter project, which will provide the core combat aircraft for the German, Spanish and Italian air forces, along with the Royal Air Force, remains just such a project. Begun in the same period as the French Dassault Rafale, and the Swedish JAS Gripen programmes, it differed in being a collaborative programme. The other two projects may be the last two programmes of combat aircraft ever to be developed at a national level - they have become too expensive.

Conceived initially in the mid-1980s, the Eurofighter 2000 was designed to meet the envisaged Soviet threat around the turn of the century - effectively advanced variants of the Su-27 Flanker and Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum - while also having a secondary air-to-surface strike capability.

Partly by good fortune, and partly by British Aerospace's desire to have a top-end fighter also suited for the export market, the Eurofighter 2000 remains well suited to the radically altered military environment. If the four partner nations have got this right, they have, however, also got many things wrong.

WELL-AIMED CRITICISM

The latest salvo of criticism to be aimed at the programme came from the UK Government's financial watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO). Much of the NAO's concern focused on the cost over-runs on the programme so far, and on the potential for further cost escalation.

The report says: "Since it commenced in 1988, the cost of the Eurofighter development programme to the UK has risen by some 23% [£662 million]. "The total cost to the UK for the project is now estimated at £3.9 billion. The UK's production off-take of 250 aircraft is expected to cost £10.6 billion, with the unit cost of each aircraft totaling some £42.4 million, excluding development costs. This figure does included, the integrated logistics support [ILS] cost. The ILS is intended to provide cost savings throughout the service life of the aircraft."

The substantial rise in development costs is ascribed to various factors: revised time-scales, technical difficulties and delays, and increased equipment costs.

As a result of both technical and political problems, the programme schedule has been revised by three years. On the technical side, the digital flight-control system (FCS) was identified as the main cause of delays.

In considering the affordability of future combat aircraft, particularly in the European context, but also with regard to any collaborative project, it is worth dwelling on what the NAO has to say about this key element of the programme.

The report identifies the "formal relationship" between the lead company on the FCS, Daimler-Benz Aerospace (DASA) and its main partner GEC-Marconi Avionics, as a "principal cause of delay". This it attributes to the latter only being "...informed of design changes through a lengthy change approval process".

Underlying this criticism is the issue of why DASA, and not GEC, was chosen to lead the FCS development. The German company did have experience of such projects, but GEC was widely viewed as being better placed to head the project. It is generally considered that political expediency, rather than rigorous technical criteria, originally determined which country was to lead the FCS development.

While the report does not discuss this issue explicitly, it criticises other "work-sharing arrangements" associated with the FCS. "An example of this", it notes, is "...the decision to allocate development of the electronics boards of the stick sensor and interface control assembly to two separate companies in different countries".

A similar Byzantine approach to the cutting of software code for the FCS was also adopted. The impact of this arcane approach was that, when the software modules were tested together at GEC and interface problems were uncovered, the software had to be returned to the company (and country) of origin to be rectified.

What is made patently clear in the NAO report is that, if development-cost targets stand a chance of being met, then the Eurofighter 2000 FCS development is far from an ideal model in achieving this.

EUROFIGHTER INDICTMENT

In an indictment of some of the underlying practices associated with the Eurofighter programme, the NAO states: "Overly rigid adherence to the work-sharing requirements has compromised the price benefits that would have been expected to accrue from both the competition for the equipment and engine accessories.

"In particular, the preference to select bids from specially created consortia, rather than single companies, has led to proposals being constructed to meet work-sharing requirements, rather than to match technical expertise and achieve best value for money."

This signals one of the weaknesses of the collaborative approach, at least within a multi-national European framework. Competition for subcontract work, ostensibly let on the grounds that a best price can be achieved through a contest, is instead all-too-often determined on the grounds of political expediency.

Norman Barber, chairman of the aerospace group of Smiths Industries, says: "If we look at the arrangements under which equipment for the Eurofighter has been developed, the design of a component has, in many cases, been compromised to achieve a work-share that is satisfactory."

On future collaborative projects, if the control of cost is a determining criterion, then partner nations must accept that competitive tendering for subcontracts is just that. Some other mechanism needs to be established for ensuring an equitable doling out of work-share, if this in itself remains part of the industrial equation.

Allied to the technical delays in pushing up the programme's development cost was a 56% rise in the cost of aircraft equipment. The two main items, which contributed to this, were the Defensive Aids Sub-System, which was 101% higher than originally estimated, and the forward-looking infra-red system, which was 292% more expensive than originally estimated.

COST ESCALATION

While the nature of international collaboration and its impact on the programme costs, have long vexed the Europeans, such issues remain, a relative unknown to their US competitors.

The US aerospace sector has traditionally serviced its Department of Defense's combat-aircraft requirements independently. Only in recent years have companies been driven to collaborate internally on large procurement programmes such as Boeing and Sikorsky on the RAH-66 Comanche and Lockheed Martin and Boeing on the F-22 advanced tactical fighter.

Even the F-22, the core combat aircraft for the USAF in the 21st century, has not escaped cuts. Originally up to 750 aircraft were required. This number has now been shaved to 442, worth an estimated $70 billion.

The F-22 represents the most expensive fighter programme now in development. The aircraft is intended to provide a "first-look, first-kill" capability against envisaged future threats, including the Mikoyan Article 1.42. The F-22 marries low observability with a highly manoeuvrable airframe, at a level of compromise considerably less than that of the Eurofighter 2000 or the Dassault Rafale.

While this will provide the USAF with an aircraft with a "greater" combat capability than that of the Eurofighter 2000 or the Rafale, it will also acquire an aircraft at a far higher unit cost, and in reduced numbers.

In attempting to cap the costs of the F-22, Lockheed Martin will be looking to draw on its recent experience with the F-16. During 1994, the company succeeded in cutting the unit cost of the fighter aircraft by $3 million, to $20 million.

The savings were gained from an effort to improve quality and increase efficiency, aimed a producing and delivering "zero-defect" aircraft.

While, as was seen for the Eurofighter in the development phase, a profusion of subcontractors is almost certain to inflate costs, the opposite is true at the production stage. Lockheed's experience is that subcontracting for production of a combat aircraft produces lower overheads and better prices. It has also, however, reduced its supplier base, focusing on fewer, if more heavily utilised, subcontractors.

CLOSER INTEGRATION

Production costs are also a factor influencing those at BAe. Dopping-Hepenstal says that the company is looking to take advantage of "closer integration of design and manufacturing processes", in what is sometimes referred to as "seamless manufacturing".

Beyond the F-22 and the Eurofighter, countries are already beginning to look at the next generation of combat aircraft. The UK, for example, will need to replace its Panavia Tornado GR4 interdictor-strike aircraft around 2015, as will eventually both the Italians and Germans.

Dopping-Hepenstal stresses that the company is now heavily investing in research and development, particularly at Warton in northern England, aimed at "improving affordability". He says: "We are restructuring the way we do research and development."

Warton already sports a radar cross-section and infra-red signature measurement range, the so-called Stealth range. An electronic-warfare/electromagnetic-compatibility test hangar is also being built.

The driver behind the heavy investment in such technologies, estimated to have run into hundreds of millions of pounds, is aimed at keeping the cost of the UK's Future Offensive Aircraft (FoA) within the realms of reality.

The first and second generations of stealth aircraft, the Lockheed F-117 and the B-2, have not been noted for their low cost. For the UK, and other European nations, however, pushing ahead with a "balanced stealth" strike aircraft will have to be predicated on convincing politicians that the third generation of stealth aircraft will be priced considerably more inexpensively than were its predecessors.

The FoA is certain to be a collaborative project, potentially with France, and perhaps with Germany as a junior partner. It will not however, be structured along the lines of Eurofighter, where weak management structures directly contributed, to cost rises on the project. Instead, a single lead company is liable to be selected.

Alongside the FoA, and perhaps even meeting the requirement, is potentially the USA's first genuine taste of an international collaborative project, the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) programme. As Christopher Pratt, Rolls-Royce Military Aero Engines director of short take-off and landing programmes quips: "The A really stands for affordable."

The the JAST is intended to be an all-singing, all-dancing, combat aircraft with both conventional and vertical take-off variants meeting USAF and US Navy requirements, along with the Royal Navy's need for a BAe Harrier F/A2 replacement. It is also intended to be cheap enough to be procured in considerable numbers. BAe has teamed with McDonnell Douglas on bidding for JAST work.

If the JAST is to be a success, then it will need not only to be able to meet the disparate requirements of several services, but it will also have to meet the single requirement of being affordable. This more than the technological challenge, will present the biggest task for those companies eventually selected to develop a service aircraft from the project.

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