In selecting the winning design for its next-generation multirole fighter, the US DoD has to find a way to keep the loser in business
The US Department of Defense (DoD) in November 1996 awarded two Concept Demonstration Phase (CDP) contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the then newly named Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and in the process eliminated McDonnell Douglas from the competition. The company never recovered and within weeks agreed to merge with Boeing. Five years on, CDP has concluded and the same two finalists are only days from learning who will be the winner of what is arguably the single most important aerospace programme in the last 50 years. The challenge for the DoD is to pick a winner without condemning another industrial victim.
The significance of JSF is perhaps best summarised by the man who has directed the programme for the last two-and-a-half years, Maj Gen Mike Hough. During a recent address to an industry gathering in Washington DC he stated with characteristic marine corps directness: "This is the horse that will take you into the 21st century. If you are not on it, your core capabilities may wane so that you're not competitive or innovative in 10 years." Under the current winner-takes-all acquisition strategy there is room in the saddle for only one rider - Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
Losing the JSF competition on this basis will have major ramifications for one or other companies from the moment share trading resumes after the selection is announced. Given that the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marine Corps and the UK plan to buy 3,000 JSFs and that it will be the US foreign military sales fighter of choice for the next 30 years, there will be little left to sustain the runner-up as a viable fighter manufacturer. Either Boeing or Lockheed Martin would be left eking out a living on a dwindling number of F/A-18E/Fs or F-16C/Ds and a part share in an ever-shrinking F-22 programme.
Longer term implications of a winner-take-all strategy would be to further narrow the US aerospace industry to a single fighter house and extinguish the very competitive spirit that made the CDP of the JSF such a success. It is perhaps worth remembering that for every technological advance achieved by each successive generation of aircraft, be it the latest F-22, the earlier F-16 or going as far back as the Boeing B-52 bomber, there was a competing Northrop Grumman YF-23, Northrop YF-17 and Convair YB-60 contender driving innovation.
At the second tier major system supplier level, the importance of choice appears to be better understood. Pratt &Whitney has not been promised an exclusive place on the JSF for the F119 powerplant. It will instead face competition from the General Electric F120 engine, heralding a replay of the great engine war between the PW F100 and GE F110 to power the F-16. Even a recent Rand report, which advocated sticking with winner-take-all, recommended the DoD ensures that whichever avionics and sensor supplier was on the losing JSF team, be it Raytheon or Northrop Grumman, stay in business.
The DoD has wisely resisted last minute political moves to change the strategy, arguing that to have split the programme between two different aircraft would have undermined the cornerstone of JSF - affordability. The selection of one common design, with the flexibility to operate equally comfortably from conventional runways, an aircraft carrier or in the short take-off and vertical landing mode, is intrinsic to meeting the cost challenge. Any change to this would have delayed the schedule and driven up cost, perhaps fatally.
Industry instead now expects the DoD to select a winning contractor along the original lines, after which the door will be opened to members on the losing team to take a share in the successful programme. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have planned for this eventuality and identified a part of their respective engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) effort that could be shared out. The concern is whether it will be enough to sustain core design and engineering capabilities.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin have each recruited large teams of partners and suppliers, not just in the USA and UK, but also in those countries expected to join the EMD phase, such as Italy and the Netherlands. For partner countries to be willing to share in the development costs of the JSF, which in the case of the UK runs to 8% or $2 billion, there has to be reasonable expectation that local industry will be given a full opportunity to share in the development dollars. Whether there will be enough to go around after Friday's announcement remains to be seen.
Source: Flight International