JSF, LPD 17 mark new era at Pentagon

For the defense industry, the award late last year of initial contracts in two fiercely competed programs - the U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy/British Royal Navy Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the U.S. Navy LPD 17 amphibious transport dock ship - marked a sort of fin de siecle for the age of bloated defense budgets and the performance-at-any-price mentality that characterized the cold war era.

By John Rhea

For the defense industry, the award late last year of initial contracts in two fiercely competed programs - the U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy/British Royal Navy Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the U.S. Navy LPD 17 amphibious transport dock ship - marked a sort of fin de siecle for the age of bloated defense budgets and the performance-at-any-price mentality that characterized the cold war era.

At a Nov. 26 Pentagon news briefing to announce the two JSF semifinalists, Paul Kaminski, under secretary of defense for acquisition and technology, took great pains to stress this cultural change. "The Joint Strike Fighter`s common-family-of-aircraft approach is really a new way of doing business," he volunteered. "It`s nothing like the approach that we took on the old TFX [Tactical Fighter, Experimental, now the F-111] back in the 1960s."

Then, in the Dec. 17 announcement of the winning contractor for LPD-17 - to be the USS San Antonio amphibious transport dock ship, Navy leaders struck the same theme: "The LPD 17-class program is the first Navy shipbuilding effort aimed at minimizing military specifications and standards that allows contractors to take advantage of cost-reducing commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and non-developmental items," officials said in a statement.

The common thread that runs through both of these multi-billion-dollar programs is the healthy industrial base that winners all brought to the competition: Boeing Co. of Seattle, the world`s premier builder of commercial aircraft, and Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., producer of the Air Force`s F-22, on the JSF; and the team of Avondale Industries Inc. of New Orleans, Works Corp.

of Bath, Maine, a unit of General Dynamics Corp. - both major commercial shipyards - on the LPD 17.

In the case of the JSF, the odd man out, McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis, quickly joined Boeing as the object of a buyout three weeks later.

Since there is no prospect of another new fighter aircraft program until 2015 regardless of which company finally wins the JSF, there will be only two builders of these aircraft: Boeing (with the addition of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18, plus its own work on the F-22) and Lockheed Martin (with the former General Dynamics F-16 as well as the F-22).

For the shipbuilders, there is still the formative Arsenal Ship program, but even there the LPD 17 winner (known as the Avondale Alliance) will have an edge over the two losers, Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. of Newport News, Va., and Litton Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss. This was a winner-take-all competition, with the Avondale Alliance expected to build 12 ships worth more than $8 billion over the life of the program.

It is also significant that, of the $641.4 million awarded for the lead ship in the LPD 17 program, more than $200 million will go to the team`s principal electronics supplier and system integrator, the Hughes Aircraft Co. Naval and maritime Systems unit in San Diego.

Electronics also will be the driving factor in the JSF. The Electronic Industries Association last year projected the electronics content of all DOD aircraft expenditures to rise from 39.1 percent to 47.2 percent over the next 10 years.

This was not the case during the TFX days of the 1960s or in the `70s during the interservice rivalries between the Navy`s F-14 and the Air Force`s F-15 and then the Air Force`s F-16 and the Navy`s F/A-18. The issue then was the airframe, and the reason that the services could not get together on a common fighter aircraft was Navy opposition to any design that was not ruggedized from the beginning for aircraft carrier operations.

Avionics was a minor factor in overall costs in those days, so there wasn`t much advantage in forcing the services to standardize on a common family of avionics, although military leaders made an attempt on the follow-on generation. That included today`s F-22, then known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the Army`s RAH-66 Comanche, and the never-built Navy A-12 Advanced Tactical Aircraft carrier-based attack jet.

Although the oldtimers at the Pentagon skeptically view the JSF as TFX revisited, Kaminski claims that Pentagon leaders have learned from their past mistakes. "We will be building three different designs here [replacements for the Air Force`s F-16, the Marine Corps`s AV-8B Harrier, and the Navy`s F/A-18 C/D], not a single design," he says. "But these designs will have in common the key high costs components - engines, avionics, and many of the high-cost structural components."

How common? Kaminski claims 70 to 90 percent of the costs of the three JSF variants and somewhat less than that on parts count, although he stresses that commonality will be greater among the more costly parts.

If a sufficiently open-system architecture can be devised to readily accommodate COTS avionics, Pentagon leaders might actually reverse the trend of recent decades in which the electronics content accounts for a steadily rising share of all aircraft expenditures, including logistics support and upgrades.

Kaminski also points out that JSF marks a departure from the past practice of starting with the perceived threat and then using that to dictate the performance of a new weapon system. In this culture, as he puts it, cost and schedule were considered dependent variables in the acquisition process.

A legacy of the William Perry era as secretary of defense is that cost has become an independent variable coequal with the other two and sometimes preeminent. "The cost as an independent variable concept has caused this program [JSF] to gel around a much more disciplined requirements development and conversion process in which every requirement must, in a sense, earn its way onto the platform.," Kaminski says.

Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon official during the days of the shootout between the F-16 and F-18, defends the $210 billion, 3,000-aircraft JSF program as a way to scale back the services` other, more expensive fighters: the Air Force`s F-22 (438 aircraft for $73 billion and the Navy`s F/A-18 E/F (1,000 for $90 billion). "None of these programs is as necessary or as cost-effective as the JSF," says Korb, now director of the Brookings Center for Public Policy Education in Washington.

"The Navy and Marine Corps know they must buy the JSF if they are to have a viable role in tactical air in the future," he adds.

The two programs have their own home pages on the World Wide Web. For the JSF it`s http://jast.mil (yes, they still use the old acronym for Joint Attack Strike Technology), and for the LPD 17 it`s http://sea02www.navsea.navy.mil/SOL1 .html.

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