Report highlights need for major programme launch.

US industry could lose its ability to design manned combat aircraft within 10 years unless another major programme is launched, warns a report by research organisation Rand. Conceptual design skills are beginning to atrophy as the Joint Strike Fighter moves into detailed engineering, says a Congressionally directed study into competition and innovation in the US military fixed-wing aircraft industry.

The Rand report was ordered by Congress in the wake of the winner-takes-all JSF contest, to provide policy options to maintain the capability for more than one US company to design and produce military aircraft. Based on currently funded programmes, the report finds that research and development funding will fall below the minimum required to maintain a viable military aircraft design team at Boeing in 2006-8, at Northrop Grumman in 2008-10, and at JSF developer Lockheed Martin two years later.

Planned commercial aircraft derivatives, such as a Boeing 767-based aerial refuelling tanker and multi-sensor command and control aircraft, and unmanned air vehicle and combat air vehicle (UAV/UCAV) programmes 'will be insufficient to sustain the current industry structure and capabilities beyond this decade,' says the report.

Co-production of the F-35 JSF would be 'expensive and does little to directly support design and development skills', says Rand, which backed the winner-takes-all strategy in a 2001 report.

'UCAVs and tankers will not do the job. We need another major combat aircraft start,' says senior analyst John Birckler. 'Already conceptual designers are out of work. There are just a few hundred of them, working on relatively small jobs.' The special skills needed to design manned combat aircraft are at risk, he believes. A new long-range strike aircraft project would provide adequate funding to sustain all three contractors to 2020, but would cost $30 billion for development and $50 billion for production of 100 aircraft, the report says.

Alternatively, the US Department of Defence could fund a series of technology demonstrators to keep design teams intact. X-plane projects would have to be funded at a much higher level than today, at up to $500 million a year, to ensure all three primes remain viable. This option would help sustain competition and innovation in the USA, but is not a complete solution, says the report, as it does not address development and production.

Boeing has no intention of abandoning its fighter design expertise, says George Muellner, senior vice- president of air force systems. Loss of the JSF to Lockheed Martin refocused the company on UCAVs and long-range strike concepts. The design team remains largely on the payroll. 'The design engineers who worked the JSF have all been applied to other programmes….like FCS [Future Combat Systems],' he says.


Source: Flight International