Aging Avionics Spell Doom For Air Force, Study Warns

By Roxana Tiron

The Pentagon needs a new game plan for dealing with aging avionics in its aircraft fleet, experts said. A study, just published by the Air Force Science and Technology Board and sponsored by the National Research Council (NRC), urged the Defense Department to both pump more dollars into avionics upgrades and to set clear guidelines for how aircraft should be upgraded in order to keep up with fast-moving information technologies.

“There is a mismatch between the time that we keep our military equipment and the refresh cycle that we have for electronics technology today,” said Noel Longuemare, vice chair of the board’s committee on aging avionics in military aircraft, which authored the study. “Instead of lasting for 30 years, it takes 18 months to three years until it turns around, and that is a fundamental mismatch. Many of the things that keep these systems running are not available anymore.”

The long development cycles of military weapon systems mean that, by the time it is procured, a new aircraft could be technologically obsolete, said Bill Dane, an aircraft analyst with Forecast International DMS. He said that, increasingly, electronics in military aircraft need to be updated often, in order to meet new threats. “Missiles get more sophisticated, so the aircraft have to become more sophisticated.”

For the Air Force F-22 Raptor air-superiority fighter, which began to be developed about 20 years ago, $50 million a year is budgeted to replace old avionics with new hardware and software. The NRC report said that, by the time the first production F-22 rolls off the line, its avionics systems will have undergone four technology refresh cycles.

The average age of U.S. military aircraft is 20 years and on the rise, because of the low replacement rate, according to the report. During the 1990s, the mission capability of U.S. aircraft declined from 83 percent to 73 percent.

“If we continue to modernize at the current rate, statistics show that in 2015, approximately 25 percent of the equipment, such as planes and trucks, will be new, and 75 percent will be old,” said Longuemare. “To me, that is a rather shocking number. In 15 years, the things we’ll have will be old.”

The Air Force estimates that it would need up to $ 275 million more per year to deal with the aging avionics problem. The NRC panel concluded that another $5 billion needs to be added beyond 2005, just to complete the upgrades approved in the 2001 president’s budget request.

Because money is tight in the Air Force, one of the main recommendations of the advisory panel is to implement a so-called modular open-system approach (MOSA), already used in the commercial aircraft industry. “Most of these industries are gravitating towards families of modular products, so that they can take one of the basic designs, use a core capability and then tailor that to each customer and application without starting design from scratch,” said Longuemare.

With a modular, open-architecture approach, a lot less hardware will need to be replaced in the future, said Dane. “You can replace one module and find a new one, rather than replace the entire system.”

In the 1980s, the electronics for military aircraft were built independently. Therefore, “if you make a change in one area, it is difficult to see what you are changing in other areas,” said Longuemare. “You have a big problem verifying whether the systems are working as they should be.”

Bob Gabel, director of marketing at Rockwell Collins, said that open-system architecture is driving the aircraft market to use much more software. “If technology becomes more software driven, I can stick a disk in my airplane and update and insert technology at a quicker pace,” he said. “I can insert a new map, and I don’t have to redo the whole system.”

“If you have the basic framework, the idea is that, as there are improvements, you can easily take out the old and put in the new and that will be integrated through software,” said Greg Bricker, director of C-5 airlift requirements at Lockheed Martin. “You can take out a radio and it will be able to function immediately with some code changes.”

The Air Force C-5 heavy-lift cargo airplanes currently are undergoing a major avionics upgrade.

The NRC panel concluded that the use of modular, open-structured avionics would allow the Defense Department to solicit competitive bids from suppliers at the component level, circuit board level, the module level, or the subsystem level. Therefore, the panel recommended that the Air Force require a modular, open-system design strategy for all new programs and upgrades. A training program in MOSA concepts also should be included for program managers, acquisition personnel and support personnel, the panel said.

“Overall, [MOSA] saves a lot of money. But there is a catch,” said Longuemare. “Many of the older systems are not designed for this, and there will be some front-end costs to redesign and accommodate this new architecture.” The NRC said that MOSA would save money in the long run, but would generally cost more than customized point solutions in the short term.

Generally, Dane said, it is cheaper to upgrade the avionics than to buy new aircraft. However, some aircraft cannot be upgraded anymore, because the airframes ran out of service life. “In the future, they will have to juggle the priorities,” he said. “But at the same time, they have to continue to modernize the aircraft that the new aircraft cannot replace.

“The procurement people and the avionics upgrade people are going to be continually competing for the same funds,” Dane noted.

The Air Force must maintain an inventory of approximately 6,000 planes to sustain 195 active wings. For the past five years, the report said, the average annual procurement of new aircraft has been about 25. “If this low rate of procurement continues, the U.S. Air Force will turn over its aircraft inventory every 240 years,” the report said.

A Defense Department study released last year, titled, “Product Support for the 21st century: A Year Later,” noted that the department spends $62 billion a year to support and maintain its equipment. In 1999, the Air Force spent about $3 billion for depot-level repairs of its aircraft and $1 billion went to the support and maintenance of avionics systems.

The Air Force is turning to contractors to do most upgrade work. “The cost is going to be very high, not only in dollars, but also in the availability and readiness of the aircraft,” said Longuemare.

“I can spend less money to fix today’s problem, but I will spend that money over and over again as we go into the future,” said Gabel, whose company has just received a $25 million award to upgrade the Greek Air Force fleet of C-130 tactical transport airplanes during the next three years.

“The support of the aircraft is 80 percent of the cost for the next 20 years,” Gabel said.

The existing C-130s, he said, have many obsolete parts, radio instruments and auto-pilots, some up to 20 years old. “The reliability is low, as well as the functionality which is not as crisp as it could be today,” Gabel noted. The Greek fleet has five C-130B models and 10 C-130H models. Rockwell Collins will work on the flight management system, displays, autopilot, weather radar, TCAS (Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System) and radio communications/navigation equipment.

The U.S. Air Force still has some E models, but most of the fleet consists of H models. “Because the mission is not changing for the C-130, the Air Force has quite a smattering of types and the logistics trails were huge,” Gabel said. The U.S. Air Force recently awarded the Boeing Co. a $4 billion contract to upgrade its C-130 fleet.

Lockheed Martin Corp. is working on the avionics modernization program for the C-5. The company is providing a digital automatic flight control system, integrating flat panel liquid crystal displays and navigation precision equipment, based on the Global Positioning System (GPS). The company also is upgrading the communications systems, adding new capabilities for connectivity and data links. An enhanced ground-proximity warning system and a traffic alert-and-collision avoidance system also are part of the C-5 upgrade program.

Bricker said that the basic premise of the program is to cut development efforts by using off-the-shelf equipment that meets the GATM requirements. GATM is the Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) agency that regulates safety requirements for communication, navigation and surveillance. The C-5 upgrade program will cost more than $450 million and is expected to be completed by October 2006. nd

Topics: Aviation, Science and Engineering Technology, Missiles

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