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Trimble on the Case

Sidewinder Ground Missile

Monday, December 14th, 2009

F15-sidewinder

Network member Ned Conger sent this one along today that caught me by surprise.

Turns out the Pentagon has been tweaking the software a bit on the AIM-9X  Sidewinder to hit ground targets. Strategy Page reported it but our boy Steve Trimble had it as well — and the StratPage entry calls it the AIM-7x — oops… From Flight Global:

The modification allows the same AIM-9X to strike both air and ground targets. Jeff White, Raytheon’s business development manager for AIM-9X, declines to describe the modification in detail, but says it involves only software changes. The AIM-9X infrared seeker, proximity fuse and blast/fragmentation warhead remain unchanged.

During a 23 September Gulf of Mexico test, a US Air Force F-15C fired the air-to-surface AIM-9X and hit a speeding “cigar boat”, a type commonly used by drug smugglers. “The missile went right through the boat,” says White.

The F-15C test follows a previous shot by an F-16 at a similar target, which also scored a hit on the boat, he adds.

Anyway, seems as if Raytheon has done some rejiggering to allow the F-15C (and F-22) a ground attack role with its compliment of side-shooting Sidewinders. The combination of the helment-mounted cuing systems and highly advanced heat seakers allow the air-to-air missile to plink hot targets on the ground as well.

Sounds like a darn good idea. I’d be interested to learn what the damage yield is with one of those puppies. A 20 pound blast frag warhead doesn’t seem like much to me, but it sounds like it could be effective against vehicles. And after all, the AGM-114 Hellfire has a nearly 30 pound warhead and has no problem taking out HVTs.

– Christian

Has the Chinook met its FATE?

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

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The first Boeing CH-47, a 33,000lb machine powered by two 1,640shp Lycoming (now Honeywell) T55 engines, achieved first flight on Sept. 21, 1961.

Nearly 47 years and seven major upgrades later, the CH-47F and MH-47G has doubled in weight to 50,000lb, while the engine shaft horsepower rating has tripled with introduction of the 4,868shp T55-GA-714 powerplant.

With only 10% of the CH-47F delivered, however, Boeing is again proposing to radically increase the size of the airframe. The “growth Chinook” would be stretched and widened to accommodate and up-armored HMMWV (Humvee) inside the cabin. This would increase maximum takeoff weight to around 70,000lbs and demand a much larger engine. Honeywell has already proposed a roughly 6,000shp T55-GA-715.

It’s still unclear what the army thinks about all this. After all, the army is planning to buy another 400 CH-47Fs. It’s also still debating how much it needs a Joint Heavy Lift rotorcraft that would be more than twice the size of the CH-47F.

On top of all this, the army has also started a program to replace the venerable T55 with an all new engine in the 6,000shp to 7,000shp range after 2018. Last week, I confirmed that Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric are each participating in the earliest stages of the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE) program.

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Code name alert: Is Liberty Ship a new Big Safari?

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

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The US Army has Constant Hawk. The US Marine Corps has Angel Fire. Somebody has something called Highlighter.

What the heck are they?

Constant Hawk, Angel Fire and Highlighter are the names of manned, light aircraft that have been invented since the Iraqi occupation began to fight against the scourge of improvised explosive devices.

Public details vary greatly for each of these semi-classified aircraft programs. Thanks to funding and turf wars, we know quite a bit about Constant Hawk (a modified Shorts C-23B Sherpa) and Angel Fire. [USA Today article is here. Great analysis by StrategyPage​.com is here.]

The US Army Material Command was even generous enough to post a photo of Constant Hawk on their Flickr page.

All I know about Highlighter is that it was invented by the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), and it is an aircraft. (Dear Maj Gen Montgomery Meigs, Thank you for disclosing Highlighter’s existence in a commentary you wrote to “correct” a critical Marine Corps Times editorial on April 16, 2007.)

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Oops! Will the US Air Force lose Joint STARS?

Monday, June 9th, 2008

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I believe I have seen the future replacement for the E-8C Joint STARS fleet (shown pictured), and it’s not going to be a US Air Force aircraft.

The US Navy is preparing to replace the EP-3E ARIES II, an electronic intelligence aircraft, with a new-start acquisition program called EPX.

But the navy’s requirements for EPX call for an aircraft that would not only spy on enemy electronic signals, like the EP-3E, but also find and track moving targets, like the E-8C.

Interestingly, the EPX program of record will acquire 19 to 26 aircraft to replace only 11 EP-3Es flying today. At the high end of that range, 26 aircraft would nicely replace all 11 EP-3Es and all 17 E-8Cs in service. (One E-8C is a testbed, and doesn’t count.)

If the air force can’t pay for an E-8C replacement to appear after 2015, or even to modernize the radar on the current fleet, watch for the navy to steal this mission with the EPX. It’s the roles and missions equivalent of a pick-pocketing.

And it’s happened before. In 1998, the air force lost the EC-135 Looking Glass mission to the navy’s E-6 take-charge-and-move-out (TACAMO) aircraft. Now, it’s happening again, unless the air force acts very quickly.

This all became clear to me during my weeklong tour of Boeing’s defense sites based in the Pacific Northwest. Paul Summers, Boeing’s capture lead for EPX, briefed reporters about the navy’s requirements, explaining that the size of the future EPX fleet had grown from 14–19 aircraft to 19–26 aircraft since last year.

The obvious question later occurred to me: Why does the navy need 26 EPX aircraft to replace 11 EP-3Es. Clearly, the navy has bigger ideas for this fleet.

Paul also discussed the new radar for the EPX. This in itself is noteworthy. The EP-3E does not have a radar. The aircraft intercepts and maps enemy communications and other electronic transmissions.

We’ve known for about a year that Boeing and Raytheon have installed the new littoral surveillance radar systems (LSRS) on a subset of the P-3C fleet, giving the navy its own mini-Joint STARS capability.

It is now clear that the LSRS is the proverbial trojan horse, injecting the navy into the Joint STARS business for the long-term.

Paul also explained that Boeing will consider the LSRS or another radar for EPX. The only possible alternative is a new variant of Northrop Grumman’s wide area surveillance sensor developed under the multi-platform radar technology insertion program (MP-RTIP).

This will force Northrop to make a tough choice. Northrop, you see, is the prime contractor the E-8C, so it has everything to lose if the navy takes over the mission. However, if the company decides to join Boeing’s EPX bid, that could be a signal that it believes the air force will never get around to replacing the E-8C.

The navy has money in the budget beginning next year to launch EPX. The air force has no funds to replace E-8Cs for the foreseeable future, and now faces a potentially disruptive leadership transition.

I’m not a betting man, but, if I was in Northrop’s position, I know where I’d place my bet.

The air force has only itself to blame. The folly of the E-10 program, which spectacularly failed to combine an E-8C, and E-3A AWACS and an airborne operations center onto the same platform, has left the air force without a discernible plan to replace its aging fleets of 707-based aircraft.

The air force’s only hope to stay in the E-8C business may be to observe the adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Establishing a true “joint” partnership to acquire and operate a new fleet of narrowbody-class aircraft to serve all of the specialized missions performed today by 707s looks like the only way back in. (This idea also has the charm of making sense.)

Indeed, it has been proposed several times in the past. The only difference now is that the air force won’t be calling the shots.

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Growler Day

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

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In a drizzly ceremony today, we will witness Secretary of the Navy Don Winter accept the delivery of the first EA-18G Growler to the USN’s fleet readiness squadron.

This would be a fairly routine affair except for a couple of very distinguishing facts: first, the event is occurring exactly according to the original schedule and, second, Boeing’s five-year-old development program is not over-budget.

It’d be nice to think those two facts weren’t so extraordinary, but, in the world of military acquisition, it is.

To be sure, there remain a few caveats. The operational test phase begins in September, which will expose any unresolved design or technology glitches. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that a few software issues need to be fixed before operational tests can be performed. We’ll see how that pans out, but none of the issues sound like show-stoppers.

Some of the more cynical observers (blush) might also say that Boeing and the Navy cheated with the EA-18G.

This is not the same as starting a new weapon project from scratch. The airframe for the EA-18G is based on the design of the already proven F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the electronic warfare package is based largely on the ICAP III suite already flying on the EA-6B Prowler. The ALQ-99 jammer is merely a decade-old, upgraded version of a pod that first flew in 1971 (and needs to be retired as threats evolve over the next decade).

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Why Do Commercial Platforms Make Such Lousy Military Aircraft?

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

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The above is the question that the US Department of Defense is asking itself, courtesy of a new Defense Science Board Task Force chaired by Jacques Gansler. I wrote about the issue in a news analysis published this week in Flight International. I’ve posted an excerpt below, and you can read the full story here.

Taking an “off-the-shelf” aircraft and adapting it for a new military role was supposed to be the cheap and easy alternative to designing an all-new platform.

So, in accord with the mantra “faster, better and cheaper”, US military services since 2001 have often turned to off-the-shelf derivatives of commercial and military aircraft to satisfy new and emerging requirements for a wide range of missions, including scout and utility helicopters, VIP transports, surveillance aircraft and aerial tankers, to name but a few.

The results, however, have proved disappointing. Far from removing cost and schedule risks, procurements based on off-the-shelf aircraft and similar equipment have led to some of the most expensive acquisition fiascos for the US military over the last decade.

Examples range from aborted efforts, such as the ERJ-145-based aerial common sensor (ACS) or the 767-400ER-based E-10A, to multi-billion dollar development fiascos, as endured by the EH101-based VH-71A presidential helicopter and the Bell 407-based ARH-71A armed reconnaissance helicopter.

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Have You Heard of This Bomb?

Friday, March 14th, 2008

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The US Air Force wants Boeing to integrate the GBU-57 bomb on the Northrop Grumman B-2A, or so says this solicitation document released earlier this week.

I find that very interesting on a number of levels, not least because the USAF has never before disclosed the existence of a weapon called the GBU-57!

(Designation​-systems​.net, in fact, lists weapons all the way up GBU-54, so that means a GBU-55 and GBU-56 could be somewhere in the classified inventory, too!)

But the existence of the GBU-57 gets even more interesting after a Google search. The only direct mention to the weapon appeared in an article in London’s Guardian newspaper in 2003, and then bizarrely as a passing reference. I would love to know how the Guardian’s reporter so casually came across that seemingly classified factoid for his article.

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More B-2 Crash Speculation

Friday, February 29th, 2008

You can look this one up. See FY 09 budget request, justification materials, US Air Force, Aircraft procurement-Vol. 2, page 71.

You’ll find on that page a detailed description for not one, but two potential mechanical problems that could cause a B-2A to crash.

Here’s a sampling (read highlighted text):

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The problem is caused by the B-2A’s distorted engine inlets.

The distortion causes excessive wear on the stage 1 fan blades for the F118-GE-100 engines. Take that and an unplanned “foreign object damage event”, and, voila, your $1.1 billion bomber may experience a “catastrophic in-flight emergency”.

But there’s another problem. A loose fan blade also can spark an “uncontained titanium fire”. According to the same document, the titanium fire — whatever that is — may cause a “Class A event”, or what normal people call a “crash”.

The problem is listed in the budget justification documents because the USAF is buying repair blades this year to fix the problem. I’m sure it will be interesting for the investigators to find out whether the “Spirit of Kansas” had received the repairs before the crash, among other items of interest, of course.

– Steve Trimble

Second Guessing BAMS

Friday, February 8th, 2008

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I started covering the US Navy’s off-again/on-again Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program about five years ago. It’s been back on for two years and — last I checked — poised for a contract selection decision in five days.

This makes me sad because I just thought of an obvious angle for a BAMS story that I’ve missed somehow for the last five years.

If I had the chance to re-interview all of the competitors and USN program officials, here’s the first question I would ask: Why is this a winner take-all award instead of a split-buy?

The competitors for BAMs are the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Global Hawk (high-altitude, turbofan, active electronically scanned arrays), Lockheed Martin/General Atomics Mariner (medium-altitude, turboprop, mechanically scanned arrays) and Boeing/Gulfstream G-550 (high-altitude, turbofan, optionally manned, multiple active arrays).

Each product is basically an off-the-shelf platform modified to meet the USN’s requirement. The USN is not paying to design a new aircraft. It’s essentially buying a la cart. That’s probably why each platform offers vastly different operational strengths and weaknesses.

This competition isn’t a choice between two discreetly differerent rivals, like the YF-22 versus the YF-23. This is more like the YF-22 versus the B-1. Each platform is a completely different capability, but both are useful for their intended purpose.

I agree there are downsides to a split buy award: the upfront costs are higher than a winner-takes-all award, you lose some of the marginal benefits of commonality and training gets more complicated.

But there are other advantages. The USN would not be beholden to one contractor for BAMS for the next two or three decades, but could keep playing the two teams off each other over the life of the program. Instead of a narrowly focused solution, the USN’s operators could employ the platform that makes the most sense for each mission.

Not to mention the fact that Congress tends to like split buys, as it spreads the jobs more broadly and subjects the defense industry to greater competition.

I’m not saying a split-buy is the best answer for BAMS, but rather that it’s an important and seemingly logical question that I should have asked long before now.

(Full disclosure: my wife works for Lockheed.)

– Steve Trimble

Going Foreign Again?

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

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It’s 2015. Both the long-lived Boeing C-17 and extremely long-lived Lockheed Martin C-130 production lines either have just shut down or are finally about to close.

Neither Boeing’s engineers in Long Beach nor Lockheed’s engineers in Marrietta have anything new in the pipeline. Sure, there’s some paper drawings of stealthy tactical airlifters getting some buzz, but nothing within at least five to 10 years of coming to flying fruition.

So, both manufacturers decide to do what all US defense companies do in this situation: they go foreign!

Lockheed locks arms with the company they spurned more than 15 years before on a potential joint tanker bid. So the Lockheed/Airbus axis offers the USAF the in-production A400M, which of course will be assembled in Mobile or Marrietta (or both) and fitted with a new 10,000shp-class General Electric turboprop or the Pratt & Whitney PW800, which was actually the orignal A400M engine before “the Chirac affair”.

Boeing, which will never partner with the likes of Airbus, has to be more clever. They decide to link up with the manufacturer they briefly considered for a Joint Cargo Aircraft bid: Ukraine’s Antonov! The AN-70 is a rugged beast of an airframe, and Boeing’s engineers believe they can smooth out its aerodynamic and mechanical quirks. Boeing parks the new AN-70 assembly line somewhere in the US southeast, with Charleston (South Carolina), Jacksonville or San Antonio on the shortlist.

– Steve Trimble