Cost increases and schedule delays - traditional features of combat aircraft programmes - are no longer accepted

Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC


Cost is king in the combat aircraft world, if a semi-serious comment by one of the two Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) teams is anything to go by. "Affordability, affordability and affordability are the three requirements for the Joint Strike Fighter. Get two out of three and you might just stand a chance of winning."

The JSF teams are not the only ones feeling the pressure. Programmes that were begun before affordability became an issue are being forced to face the new reality. As new fighters on both sides of the Atlantic make the transition from development and production, there is a new emphasis on reducing costs.

Costs of the F-22 (above) have been scrutinised since the programme was launched, not surprisingly given the price tags of almost $19 billion and $40 billion attached to development and production, respectively. Cost increases and schedule delays have also been issues since the outset, although some problems have been outside the programme's control - funding instability is estimated to have added $1.5 billion to costs.

Development of the F-22 began in August 1991. In June 1996, concerned about growing costs, the Department of Defense established the Joint Estimating Team (JET) to determine the probable cost of the development and production programmes. The JET concluded in 1997 that additional time and money would be required to complete development, particularly of the F-22's highly integrated avionics. As a result, development was extended by a year, to 2003, and the budget increased.

With development costs capped at just under $19 billion, the US Air Force and the Lockheed Martin/Boeing/Pratt & Whitney F-22 team last year began looking at the work still to be performed. They concluded that it would take $425 million more than budgeted to complete development. The USAF, all too familiar with the disruption caused by rebaselining the programme, decided to anticipate cost growth and added a $242 million reserve, resulting in a total development "overrun" of $667 million.

Rather than ask for more money, however, the USAF identified a number of adjustments to development that would absorb the overrun and allow the programme to stay within the cost cap. The proposals have created some controversy in Congress, particularly the decision to defer clearance of external stores until after development of the aircraft is completed.

Tom Burbage, president of F-22 prime contractor Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, defends the plan. "No avionics testing has been moved out of the programme. The only thing that has been moved out is external stores certification, and we were not under contract for that." Stores separation clearance will now be done during follow-on testing.

At initial operational capability in December 2005, the aircraft will still be cleared to carry the AIM-120C and advanced AIM-9X air-to-air missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munition air-to-surface weapon in its internal bays, as well as underwing fuel tanks, which Burbage stresses are only required for ferry missions.


Cost overruns

There are two root causes for the latest cost overruns: delays in building the flight test aircraft and underestimation of the avionics development task.

Two of the nine F-22 development aircraft are flying, 4001 and 4002, and the third was rolled out in late May. After ground tests, 4003 is scheduled to join the flight test programme in the second quarter of next year. Meanwhile, the static test airframe, 3999, has been completed and has entered limit load testing.

Aircraft 3999 and 4003 are the first "Block 2" F-22s with upgraded structures able to withstand inlet hammer-shock loads discovered during design. Aircraft 4001 and 4002 are limited to about 80% of the F-22's full flight envelope because of their Block 1 airframes.

One of the changes in the Block 2 airframe is a new "side of body" casting, which attaches the wing to the fuselage. Problems producing this large hot isostatic press (HIP)-cast titanium part delayed assembly of the wings by Boeing. Burbage, until recently F-22 programme general manager, says the problems have been overcome and the team is "playing catch-up" in assembly to minimise the delays.

"Boeing will be three to six months late delivering wings, but we will be only three to six weeks late delivering aircraft," he says.

With 3999 and 4003 off the final assembly line at Marietta, Georgia, aircraft 4000 - the fatigue test airframe - will be next. Aircraft 4004 to 4007 are on the assembly line. Burbage expects to be back on schedule by the seventh flight-test aircraft - "For sure by 8 and 9," he says.

Aircraft 4004 is the first avionics-test F-22, and its first flight in February will mark the start of the most demanding phase of flight testing. Development of the air-superiority fighter's "sensor fused" avionics has long been recognised as the riskiest part of the programme, and the team is relying heavily on ground laboratories and a flying testbed to prove the hardware and software ahead it flying in the F-22.

Burbage says the team must achieve three key software events this year. The first is release of Block 1.1 software that will allow the avionics in 4004 to be turned on for aircraft continuity testing, scheduled for June. Second is the release of Block 2 software for initial sensor fusion testing in the flying testbed, planned for July. Third is the critical design review of Block 3 software, which will provide the first "full warfighting capability". This is planned for October.

These three events, and demonstration of all critical limits loads using the static test article, are among "exit criteria" for a Department of Defense decision, scheduled for November, on whether to approve low rate initial production of the F-22. "We are well ahead of schedule," says Burbage. "We see nothing that will jeopardise flight test."

Budget efforts

Efforts to keep F-22 development on budget include changes to make ground and flight testing more efficient. "We are not using flight test for data gathering, but for data verification," says Burbage. As a result, the ground laboratories are playing a key role in proving system performance ahead of flight testing.

One change to the programme intended to reduce costs is the creation of a "super lab" at Edwards AFB, California, where the flight-test aircraft are based. This will combine a system integration laboratory with an integrated hardware-in-the-loop test (IHAT) facility and an anechoic chamber large enough to conduct electronic combat testing with an F-22.

"We can't test to the limits of the avionics in flight. There are not enough targets," Burbage says. "But we can saturate the system in the IHAT." The facility is scheduled to be operational by the end of next year, and represents an industry investment of about $100 million, with the Government providing a shipset of F-22 avionics worth about the same amount.

Efforts continue to identify both development and production cost reductions. Industry has promised $80 million of savings in development, about $30 million of which have been validated so far. Further substantial savings are being sought in production, in an effort to stay within the $40 billion cap.

Low-risk programme

A key element of plans to reduce the F-22's production cost is multi-year procurement. The USAF's current plan is to seek Congressional approval for a three-year procurement beginning with Lot 5 in 2004, the first year that production reaches the planned peak of 36. A second five-year procurement would complete the planned 339 aircraft.

Critical to winning approval is "getting to a stable configuration as quickly as we can," says Burbage. Lockheed Martin/Boeing is under contract to produce two production-representative test vehicles, and hopes to receive a contract for the first low-rate initial production lot of six aircraft by year end. The team has agreed to fixed prices for these first eight F-22s, says Burbage.


Boeing's experience with the F/A-18E/F (above) has been very different to that with the F-22. From the outset, the programme was intended to be low risk, and it has stayed on cost and on schedule - and enjoyed enviable funding stability. Now the US Navy is seeking approval for multi-year procurement of the aircraft.

Despite the programme's success so far, Congress is concerned that the USN is pushing for a five-year procurement before operational evaluation (Opeval) of the F/A-18E/F is complete. The service estimates that multi-year procurement of 222 aircraft will save $750 million and, without it, the USN will be forced to seek more money or buy fewer aircraft.

Low-rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft delivered for Opeval fully comply with the specification, says Boeing's F/A-18 programme general manager, Pat Finneran. The company plans to have a stable configuration by LRIP lot 3, allowing multi-year procurement to begin as planned with the fiscal year 2000 budget.

As a number of avionics upgrades are in the pipeline for the F/A-18E/F, which is basically a structural upgrade of the F/A-18, Boeing is designing provisions for these systems into the aircraft. "We will have a stable configuration by LRIP 3," says Finneran. "We anticipate upgrades, so we are taking them into consideration in the LRIP 3 configuration. That way we won't have to redesign the aircraft."

Sound business

Multi-year procurement of the Boeing AV-8B by the US Marine Corps generated the savings forecast, he points out, and allowed the service to pay to upgrade the aircraft with a radar. "So multi-year procurement of the F/A-18E/F is a good business decision," he says.

At the same time, Boeing is looking at product improvements that could reduce the cost of the F/A-18E/F. A study is under way into the costs and potential savings of redesigning the forward fuselage - "the oldest part," Finneran says. The company already is achieving substantial savings in assembly of the aircraft, he says.

Over in Europe, the cost pressures are no less intense. Germany's near-withdrawal from the four-nation Eurofighter programme in the early 1990s forced the industrial partners to cut the cost of the aircraft by 30% and sign tough fixed-price production contracts.

Manufacture of the Eurofighter is under way, beginning with five instrumented production-standard aircraft to be delivered beginning in August 2001 and which will be used to complete flight testing and verify the production design. The first series production aircraft will be delivered in June 2002.

Although "not totally comfortable" with the production contract, Eurofighter managing director Brian Phillipson believes the aircraft can be delivered on cost, on schedule and to specification. "The airframe will carry through to production well," he says. The avionics will be more of a challenge.

"Productionising" of the Eurofighter is under way. The opportunity is being taken to upgrade systems where required to increase performance and tackle obsolescence. At the same time, suppliers are being encouraged to review their workshare arrangements to see if there is a better, cheaper way to produce systems. "Production is lean. We cannot afford unreliable quality or late delivery," Phillipson says.

Obsolescence between the development and production standard is a "big issue", he says. The aircraft has been under development since 1988, and several systems are now having to be redesigned to eliminate out-of-production parts. This work is being funded under the production investment phase, as Eurofighter tools up for production of the aircraft.


Multi-year advantage

Eurofighter (above) has an advantage over its US counterparts, in that the production contracts placed by the four customer nations are multi-year. The initial tranche covers 148 aircraft for delivery between 2001 and 2005. A Tranche 2 contract for 236 aircraft will be awarded in 2002, and will be followed in 2007 by Tranche 3, also for 236 aircraft. Under an umbrella contract signed in January 1988, which set a maximum price for the 620 aircraft required by Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, production tranches will be awarded at progressively lower fixed prices. This gives industrial partners Alenia, British Aerospace, Casa and DaimlerChrysler Aero-space an incentive to drive down costs early in the production programme.

In the JSF programme, affordability is being designed in from the outset. Target unit recurring flyaway costs have been set for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps/Royal Navy versions of the aircraft, and capability is being traded off against cost in the requirements definition process.


Cost has become an issue early in the programme, with the recent rebaselining of the concept demonstration effort after Lockheed Martin discovered it would overrun its budget. Rather than increase the funding, or allow the teams to spend their own money, the JSF programme office asked Lockheed Martin and rival Boeing to restructure their activities to complete the concept demonstration phase on budget.

Lockheed Martin supports the decision. "They [the programme office] are buying a team. They want to see how we will function under pressure. They want to see if we can hold cost and schedule in the face of change," says deputy programme manager David Palmer. "The demonstration phase is really a test of the team," he believes.

Boeing programme manager Frank Statkus says JSF concept demonstration differs from the F-22 demonstration/validation phase in that the production aircraft is being defined in parallel with construction of the demonstrators. "In the YF-22 programme we only built prototypes. We had to start over again in development," he says. "We learned it might be better to take the lessons learned and incorporate them in parallel, so we don't have to redesign the aircraft for the next phase."

New JSF programme director Maj Gen Mike Hough stresses the importance of affordability at every opportunity. "The true legacy of this programme will be affordability," he says. "We can't afford to own today's aircraft. The JSF has to be affordable, and we think we can do it."

Source: Flight International