Lessons Learned from the F/A-22 and F/A-18 E/F Development Programs

Lessons Learned from the F/A-22 and F/A-18 E/F Development Programs

by Obaid Younossi, Mark A. Lorell, David Stem

Examining these two programs illustrates the real difficulties and successes of the U.S. military aircraft acquisition process.  See more details below


Examining these two programs illustrates the real difficulties and successes of the U.S. military aircraft acquisition process.

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Lessons Learned from the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F Development Programs

By Obaid Younossi David E. Stem Mark A. Lorell Frances M. Lussier

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2005 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Two Multirole Fighter Aircraft Programs Emerged at the End of the Cold War

From the late 1980s through the present, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have been engaged in acquiring two new multirole fighter aircraft platforms. The Air Force has pursued the F/A-22, the world's first supersonic stealth fighter, while the Navy has developed the F/A-18E/F, a carrier-capable fighter with air-to-air, interdiction, and close air support capability. Currently, the F/A-22 is in the late stages of development, while the F/A-18E/F is in full-rate production and has already been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Although these aircraft entered the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) at approximately the same time, their missions and performance goals differ widely. These differences are shaped in part by changes in the threat environment following the end of the Cold War. The F/A-22 was originally designed to counter what was perceived to be the growing Soviet fighter threat. Specifically, the Air Force wanted a new air-to-air fighter capable of defeating improved Soviet Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft. The Air Force postulated that these new Soviet aircraft would have the capability to detect and fire on enemy fighters at lower altitudes (known as"look-down, shoot-down capability") and that they would be fielded in large numbers. Supported by a Soviet version of the U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), this new threat would require a technically superior U.S. fighter to counter it. Because the F-117 could perform the attack role, what was needed, according to the Air Force, was a new, sophisticated and stealthy air-to-air fighter to replace the aging McDonnell Douglas F-15 (Aronstein, Hirschberg, and Piccirillo, 1998, p. 41). This vehicle was known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF). When the postulated Soviet threat failed to materialize, however, questions were raised concerning the need for large numbers of a technologically advanced fighter dedicated solely to the air-to-air mission. Perhaps in response to this criticism, in summer 2002 the Air Force, arguing that it needed to be able to counter a growing proliferation of surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats, added suppression of enemy air defenses to the new platform's list of missions and redesignated the aircraft the F/A-22. Thus, the F/A-22 has evolved into a multirole fighter.

The F/A-18E/F was not designed to counter a new threat or an improved Soviet capability. In fact, by the late 1980s the Navy had concluded that the threat to its battle group from enemy aircraft had diminished sufficiently that a replacement for the F-14 was not warranted. Consequently, the E/F program was initiated essentially to address the shortcomings of the F/A-18A/B and C/D models-specifically, limited bring-back capability3 and less than desired range-that limited their ability to carry out missions associated with littoral warfare. As stated in the F/A-18E/F Cost Analysis Requirements Description (CARD), "the objective of the F/A-18E/F program is to develop, test, produce, and deploy an upgraded F/A-18 with increased mission range, increased aircraft carrier recovery payload, additional growth potential, and enhanced survivability." With the increased attention during Operation Desert Storm from the use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), the F/A-18E/F was designed with a greater "bring-back" capability. Thus, from the beginning, the F/A-18E/F was designed as a multirole fighter to perform the same missions and counter the same threats as earlier models of the F/A-18 but with some incremental increase in capability.

Tables 1.1 and 1.2 illustrate the different performance goals as well as other metrics of each platform compared with the aircraft they were intended to replace. The performance metrics are speed, payload, range, and engine thrust. We also compare the avionics weight as a proxy for complexity. Finally, we compare the stealth feature of each platform. Because of the classified nature of military aircraft stealth technology, we use a subjective method to provide the reader with a qualitative relative comparison. These qualitative categorizations are very low observable (VLO), low observable (LO), reduced observable (RO), and minimum treatment (MIN). VLO airframes include not only a significant amount of Radar-Absorbing Materials (RAM) used in the treatment of all airframe surfaces but also Radar-Absorbing Structures (RAS) and the overall shaping of the airframe. The use of RAM and RAS progressively decrease from LO to MIN.

As shown on Table 1.1, the F/A-22 was designed to provide significant performance gains over the F-15 and F-16 fighters. Most important was the inclusion of cutting-edge innovations in stealth and an integrated avionics suite. The F/A-18E/F, as shown on Table 1.2, was intended to provide some incremental improvements over the C/D model, especially in the areas of stealth, range, and payload capacity. However, it is important to note that the F/A-18E/F sought lower performance in some areas compared with the F-14. As we discuss in Chapter Two, these lower performance goals were motivated by concerns about the platform's cost.

These Programs Performed Differently During Their Development Phases

The acquisition of new combat aircraft is a lengthy process involving a series of milestones and approvals that must be obtained from the Department of Defense (DoD). This process is intended to ensure that a new platform can provide its promised technical capabilities in a timely and cost-effective way. The F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F acquisitions were modeled after the earlier version DoD instruction 5000.2. Figure 1.1 illustrates this process. The old instruction divided the acquisition process into two distinct phases: the research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) phase and the production phase. In the old instruction, RDT&E was broken down into the demonstration and validation (Dem/Val) phase and EMD phase. The F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F programs are important examples of the stability or instability that new aircraft platforms may experience during the EMD phase. Figure 1.2 compares the schedule and cost planned for each program at the beginning of its development phase with the actual time and cost it took to complete this phase. As shown on the left, the F/A-22 has exceeded its original schedule by more than 52 months as of the date of the last Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) examined (December 31, 2001), while the F/A-18E/F was virtually on time. The total cost of developing the F/A-22 grew by $7.6 billion in fiscal 1990 dollars compared to the F/A-18E/F program, which met its original cost estimates.

These differences represent gradual trends evident over the course of the development phase of each program. For example, Figures 1.3 and 1.4 display the estimated completion date of each step in the EMD phase (the y-axis) as reported in annual SARs (the x-axis). A flat line indicates that the program objective was met on the originally planned date, while a rising line depicts a slip in schedule. As shown on Figure 1.3, every major milestone of the F/A-22 development program slipped. For example, initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) and Milestone III completion dates slipped by more than two years. Moreover, we would like to emphasize that the test and evaluation (T&E) program is not complete and program development is not over; therefore further slippage might occur. In contrast, as shown in Figure 1.4, very few schedule slips occurred in the F/A-18E/F program, with the exception of the initial operational capability (IOC) date.

Similarly, Figure 1.5 depicts the estimated development costs for each program as reported in the annual SARs. As shown at the top, the F/A-22 RDT&E, which includes both Dem/Val and EMD, increased at a gradual rate. The F/A-18E/F, shown at the bottom, showed very little fluctuation during the entire development period.

How do the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F experiences compare with other Air Force and Navy tactical fighter programs in recent years? Historical experience suggests that such programs often take longer and cost more to develop than originally planned. However, the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F represent exceptional cases. The F/A-22 cost and schedule is substantially higher than historical combat aircraft cost and schedule growth, and the F/A-18E/F is substantially lower than that average. Figure 1.6 shows how well previous fighter aircraft have met their estimated schedules for achieving first flight, first production, and IOC. A value of 1.00 indicates that the program met its schedule goal. As shown on the right, the degree of slippage in the F/A-22 schedule far exceeds that of previous tactical fighter programs. The F/A-22 program took 76 percent longer than estimated to achieve first flight and 57 percent longer to reach first production, and it is expected to take 19 percent longer to reach IOC. The next set of bars to the left indicate that the F/A-18E/F took only 2 percent longer than estimated to reach first flight, reached first production on schedule, and took only 12 percent longer to reach IOC.

The results are similar if we compare the cost growth figures for previous tactical fighter programs. Figure 1.7 displays cost growth (or reduction) as measured by dividing the last reported cost in the program SAR at the end of the program by the original cost estimate at Milestone II. A value of 1.00 represents no cost growth. As the figure shows, the F/A-22 cost growth is second only to that of the F-14, with the potential to continue growing until the development phase is complete. The F/A-18E/F is lower than the historical average and is the only program to complete its development under cost.

Purpose of This Report

The schedule and cost overruns in the F/A-22 program have generated considerable concern from DoD and Congress, leading to close scrutiny of the program and reductions in the number of aircraft to be produced. The office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition asked RAND Project AIR FORCE (PAF) to investigate the reasons behind the cost growth and schedule delay of the F/A-22 program and those contributing to the cost and schedule stability of the F/A-18E/F program during EMD. This report examines the acquisition strategies employed by the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F programs from their inception through the Dem/Val and EMD phases. The analysis is based on various cost and schedule reports available to PAF as well as data and information available in open sources. For instance, the SARs, CCDRs, and Cost Performance Reports (CPRs) were the main sources of data for the cost and schedule growth analysis. Other documents, such as Cost Analysis Requirements Description (CARD), contractor's weight reports, General Accounting Office (GAO) reports, and published articles and reports were also examined. The purpose of this analysis is to derive lessons that the Air Force and other services can use to improve the acquisition of such future aircraft as the Joint Strike Fighter and such other systems as unmanned aerial vehicles and missile programs.

Organization of This Report

Chapter Two discusses the acquisition strategies and industrial base issues that affected the performance of each program from inception through the EMD phase. Chapter Three analyzes the specific technology issues that surfaced during each program's EMD phase and discusses their effect on schedules and costs. Chapter Four evaluates the management approaches of each program to determine how schedules and costs were controlled during EMD. Chapter Five summarizes our conclusions and provides a list of lessons learned that the Air Force acquisition community should consider in developing 12 Lessons Learned from the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F Development Programs future weapon systems. Finally, Appendix A discusses the Department of Defense oversight and congressional interests in each program, some of which may have posed further challenges.

Chapter Two

Acquisition Strategies and Industrial Base Issues

This chapter discusses the acquisition strategies employed by the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F programs from their inception through their EMD phases. We examine the methods used by each program to solicit and evaluate contractor proposals during the Dem/Val phase and the division of work among contractors during the EMD phase. As we shall see, concerns about the needed mix of technical expertise and other industrial base issues led the F/A-22 program to distribute the work equally among the three contractor team members in the program, which resulted in an artificial distribution of work during the EMD phase. This strategy may have contributed to the schedule and cost problems experienced in the program. By contrast, the F/A-18E/F program drew on preexisting relationships and contractor expertise to minimize the technology risks involved in the project. In addition to having a team with historical ties, the program implemented a number of acquisition reform strategies designed to control costs and schedules.

The F/A-22 Program Sought to Maximize Participation by Multiple Contractors

We begin with an overview of the F/A-22 program's acquisition strategy from the ATF program in the early 1980s to the Dem/Val and EMD phases.

The F/A-22 Represented an Important Opportunity for the Combat Aircraft Industrial Base

In November 1981, DoD formally launched the ATF program. As noted in Chapter One, this program was intended to produce a replacement for the McDonnell Douglas F-15, then the Air Force's premier air superiority fighter, with a supersonic stealth aircraft that would use state-of-the-art advances in aerospace technologies and capabilities.

Very soon, it appeared to the U.S. aerospace industry that the ATF would be the only opportunity to develop an all-new, cutting-edge-technology supersonic fighter for the next decade or more. This was because in 1983, because of budget constraints and competing priorities, the U.S. Navy put on hold its plans for procuring a new common fighter (labeled the VMFX) to replace both the Grumman F-14 fleet air defense fighter and the Grumman A-6 attack aircraft. The Navy replaced the VMFX program with a new program to upgrade existing F-14s and A-6s and to procure a new stealthy subsonic attack aircraft, called the Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA). Thus, after 1983, U.S. contractors could expect at most only one major development program for an all-new supersonic air-superiority fighter-the ATF-and one other program for a subsonic attack aircraft-the ATA-at least over the following decade.

All nine then-active U.S. defense aerospace prime contractors hoped to compete for the ATF full-scale development effort: General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Northrop, Boeing, Grumman, Rockwell North American, Vought, and Fairchild. As early as May 1981, the Air Force had issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking conceptual design studies to all nine contractors. At this early stage, competition among contractors was fierce. Every participant knew that many of the losers would ultimately have to withdraw as stand-alone prime contractors from the fighter-attack aircraft market sector. Indeed, the aftermath of the ATF and ATA competitions witnessed the beginning of a massive corporate consolidation and downsizing that transformed the very structure of the U.S. aerospace industry.

As was the case during the early stages of the F-X (F-15) program nearly two decades earlier, considerable debate existed initially within the Air Force and DoD regarding the most desirable mission focus and performance characteristics for the ATF. During 1982, a consensus began to emerge that a modified version of the F-15 or F-16 could perform the air-to-ground role, permitting the ATF to be optimized for air superiority. By mid 1983, the ATF had clearly been defined as an F-15 air superiority fighter replacement.


Excerpted from Lessons Learned from the F/A-22 and F/A-18E/F Development Programs by Obaid Younossi David E. Stem Mark A. Lorell Frances M. Lussier Copyright © 2005 by RAND Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
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