Air Force Poised to Make Key Decisions on Weapon Acquisitions

By Sandra I. Erwin

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski

The Air Force is maneuvering big-ticket programs in tight budget spaces.

Acquisitions of new weapons such as replacements for aging bombers, surveillance airplanes and trainer aircraft are caught in a zero-sum game as the Air Force struggles to fit expensive programs under a flat budget top line, said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

“It's a jigsaw puzzle as we try to live within budget constraints,” she said Nov. 19 during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.

To ease the pressure, the Air Force is extending its modernization time horizon 10 years out, rather than the usual five-year cycle used to plan military budgets.

The answer to almost every question about program timelines and budgets is “it depends,” Pawlikowski said. Decisions on key programs are being made based on commanders’ needs, weapons costs and how they fit into the Air Force’s 10-year plan.

The Air Force has ascertained the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46A refueling tanker and a new long-range strike bomber as its top three priorities. A new trainer, called T-X, and a replacement for the JSTARS radar plane are also on the service’s wish list, but funding them requires dollar-for-dollar trades in order to protect the top items.

Contractors await Air Force decisions on a replacement for JSTARS, or joint surveillance target attack radar system, and the T-X trainer in 2015. Pawlikowski did not provide firm dates, but suggested the Air Force might be ready to move forward next year.

Issues remain unresolved about the desired features and price of a JSTARS replacement. Officials are still debating the size of the radar and analyzing the risk of installing complex sensors aboard airplanes such as commercial business jets that are not typically equipped with sensitive military electronics.

The current JSTARS was built on a Boeing 707 airplane and it is used for surveillance of ground and air targets. If the Air Force chooses to buy a new airplane, the “biggest risk” is the integration of the sensors and the battle-command software, she said.

“We expect to reach a milestone decision in early 2015,” said Pawlikowski. That would give the Air Force the green light to proceed into the so-called “technology maturation risk reduction phase” when military buyers will be able to work more closely with contractors to better understand the art of the possible. The final requirements would not be settled for another year.

“One of the challenges we see right now as we move forward is the need for us to have a better connection with what the industry can provide,” she said. “I want to get past the ‘glossy brochure’ piece of the engagement with industry and into the 'no kidding’” dialogue about specs and cost.

“The budget is still in flux,” Pawlikowski said, and noted that this is essentially the reality for every program. The Air Force requested $100 million for JSTARS recapitalization in fiscal year 2015, and an additional $2.4 billion over the next five years.

The current JSTARS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., will propose a modernization plan. Several competitors, including The Boeing Co., Gulfstream, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins and Bombardier are reportedly poised to compete with different aircraft makes and models.

The potentially $16 billion T-X jet trainer program is in a similar state of play as the Air Force weighs requirements against cost. The Air Education and Training Command is still debating how the program should move forward. The original goal was to buy 350 aircraft to replace aging T-38 trainers. The number could change. The 2015 budget includes $503 million for T-X over the next five years.

A big question is whether the Air Force will choose an existing aircraft or a clean-sheet design. Pawlikowski said all options are on the table. “We want to keep the trade space completely open."

Among the contenders are the Northrop Grumman/BAE Systems’ Hawk jet trainer, Alenia Aermacchi’s M346 and the T-50 offered by Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries. Textron Airland recently announced it would enter its commercially designed Scorpion as a candidate. Boeing, which has teamed with Saab North America, has suggested the company might propose a new design.

The T-X program is different than previous trainer procurements because it includes simulators to supplement live flying. Pawlikowski said a request for proposals could come in 2015, but the schedule could slip. “We are still in final stages of tweaking requirements.”

Also on next year’s calendar is a decision on who will design and manufacture the Air Force’s top-secret bomber that will replace Cold War-era B-52s. Northrop Grumman and a Boeing-Lockheed team are vying for the highly coveted award. The Air Force said it will buy up to 100 bombers that will be part of a “family of systems” including unmanned drones.

Pawlikowski declined to discuss details as most of the program specifications are classified. “We expect a decision in spring 2015,” she said.

The Air Force might, too, take the “family of weapons” approach as it studies concepts for future fighter jets. As part of an “air dominance initiative,” the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is putting together ideas. Both the Air Force and Navy are participating in the project. Pawlikowski said a probable path for that program will be a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. “Everyone focuses on ‘the fighter,’” she said. “But the answer to next generation air dominance is likely to be a family, like the long-range bomber.”

The coming year also will be a pivotal one for the KC-46 tanker, a modified 767 jet that Boeing is building to replace outdated KC-135 aerial refueling airplanes.

The program is being closely watched because it is a fixed-price deal where the contractor is obligated to absorb any cost overruns above the agreed price of $4.9 billion for 179 aircraft. Boeing already has run into difficulties. The tanker was set to make its first flight this summer but the schedule slipped due to an electrical wiring issue. Pawlikowski said the flight is now planned for December.

The Air Force still anticipates it will receive 18 new tankers by August 2017. “We think it's achievable,” she said. “Boeing gave us a progress report last week. We expect them to present revised schedule in February.”

Boeing has struggled on the “most challenging” part of the program, which is integration and testing, she said. The wiring issue has “proven to be more challenging for them than they originally anticipated.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Procurement, Defense Department

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