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The Swedish Model

How to build a jet fighter.

11:45 PM, Apr 30, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Except that just the opposite has occurred. The F-35, a single-engine stealthy aircraft, is projected by a recent report from the U.S. Government Accounting Office to cost in the neighbourhood of $130 million per copy. This is a program that, when it was developed, was specifically designed to be "cheap," as in around $35-40 million per copy, and that the designers were to make maximum use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components in order to achieve that efficiency. So, why does it end up costing more than three times one of the aircraft it is supposed to replace-- the F-16--and almost three times the price of the Gripen? (Not surprisingly, some of the JSF partner nations--namely Norway--are now talking about bolting from the program in favor of a Gripen purchase instead.)

The Eurofighter, partially thanks the catastrophic drop in value of the U.S. dollar against the Euro (and if you live in Europe as I do and try to buy groceries and gas with dollars, "catastrophic" might not even be a strong enough description for the situation), is now well over US $100 million. It suffers from the fact that it was organised and planned primarily as "welfare for European aerospace and high-tech industries," as one UK-based analyst described it, "and as a program to produce a fighter as a secondary consideration."

The economies of scale that the Eurofighter was supposed to benefit from as a result of being built by a "team" of companies never materialised. Instead multiple redundancies were created that only added to the bottom line and caused the progress of the program to move forward at what seemed like a snail's pace at times. "Don't tell anyone I ever told you this," said a frustrated Eurofighter test pilot to me during a private chat at the Le Bourget air show almost a decade ago, "but there are no efficiencies achieved in this program by having four separate flight test centres--one in each of the partner nations." The Eurofigther also has production lines in each of the four nations, plus ground test facilities, etc.

(Having had the experience of the Eurofighter has not caused European industry to rethink the viability of this model very much. The new-age European military transport, the Airbus A400M, will be built in only one factory instead of four, the CASA/EADS factory in Sevilla, Spain, but the costs of the program are still expected to make it the most expensive aircraft of its kind ever built.)

F-22A tops them all, however. The program's development has been long and expensive. Admittedly, several technologies were pioneered and matured by the process of designing and testing the F-22A. Many of these technologies--now that F-22A has "paid the freight"--can be dialled into numerous other future programs. But, when these development costs are amortised over the production run of the Raptor, the aircraft comes in at a whopping US $390 million per unit.

Surprisingly, the three aircraft that are built by one company in one country--a feat that we have been told for more than 20 years is "no longer affordable"--all cost well under $100 million. These are the Gripen, the Rafale, and the Su-35. All of them contain the latest in on-board systems technology, but they have been designed with stealthy airframe shaping being far less important and with more reliance on electronic warfare as a means of keeping them survivable in the air combat or air defence environment.

There is something to be said for the fact that the emphasis on a stealthy, low radar cross section (RCS) aircraft shape does a lot to increase the costs of the F-22A and F-35, and that this is a technology that is the competitive advantage that the United States has over its adversaries. What is sobering to realize, however, is that the one U.S. aircraft that was built with RCS being its primary--in fact, perhaps its only--consideration was just retired this week after one of the shortest service lifespans in the modern jet age: the Lockheed Skunk Works F-117A Stealth Fighter.

The F-117A is now regarded as "old" technology where its RCS reduction methods are concerned and no longer as effective ("its survivability has been eroded" is the operative term) as it once was. Its missions will be taken over by other more modern stealthy aircraft, such as the F-35. One has to ask the question, though, given the significant advances by Russia, China, and other nations in counter-stealth methods and air defence, will the ultra-expensive F-22 and F-35 face similarly truncated service lives?