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As the Navy moves closer to setting its requirements for the AX, a consensus is emerging for a multimission strike-fighter aircraft with an increased emphasis on endurance rather than range.
Rear Adm. Riley Mixson, Navy director of air warfare, said the Air Force and Navy are `coming to closure' on requirements. Although the Navy has the lead on the program, the AX also is being designed to replace Air Force F-111s, F-15Es and F-117s.
Mixson told Aviation Week & Space Technology that the two services `are seeing very much eye-to-eye on the roles and missions and performance capabilities that we would want to expect from an aircraft of this type. . . . We envision it as more of a multimission type of aircraft than perhaps was originally intended, certainly more than was intended with the A-12 program.'
Because of the current budgetary climate, the Navy is paring down to two combat airplanes--`a low-end and high-end mix,' Mixson said. The F/A-18E/F represents the low-end of the mix. `The high-end is going to be the AX, which is taking on more and more of the flavor of a multirole strike-fighter,' he said. `The Navy cannot afford a single-purpose aircraft.'
AX requirements are not only being shaped by economic necessity, but also by the debate over roles and missions. The Navy has reexamined the AX program in the context of an increased emphasis in the future on coastal and amphibious operations, to meet regional threats.
Mixson said the Navy and Air Force hope to finish defining their AX requirements by the end of the month or early October. That will coincide with the results of cost and effectiveness analyses now being conducted by both services, based on trade studies submitted last June by the five competing contractor teams. `If this airplane coincides with what we see as the future roles and missions of the Navy/Marine Corps team, then a request for proposals would be coming some time after that,' Mixson said.
Contractors expect to receive an operational requirements document in late October. They will then work on updating their designs to meet the final requirements. The Pentagon's Defense Acquisition Board is scheduled to review the program in early November. Requests for proposals for the demonstration/validation phase are expected to be issued to contractors in early December.
The Timetable could change, however. Navy officials indicate there is no need to rush to judgment. `With today's threat we have time to make sure the AX is exactly what we want it to be,' Mixson said. If the cost and effectiveness analyses indicate `we should look in another area or we should study this a little bit more, we do not feel we are on a constrained time line by any stretch of the imagination.'
The Navy's tentative requirement, which contractors based their trade studies on, included levels of speed, signature and payload that did not necessarily reflect a multimission strike-fighter. Subsequent Navy studies are now `showing us you need both' on air-to-ground and air-to-air capability, Mixson said. `If you are going to put an investment in stealth, then you want to be able to send that aircraft and have it defend itself against any potential air-to-air threat.'
The move to more of a strike-fighter does not necessarily require a supersonic aircraft, Mixson said. `There is a lot of engine technology out there today that enables you to do things without being in an afterburner mode to get the speed that you require.' Industry officials said they did not expect there would be a requirement for a supercruise capability like that of the Air Force's F-22.
Mixson said the level of stealth needed in the AX has not changed and will probably reflect current-generation technology. `Stealth brings you an added dimension in the air-to-air role as well as the air-to-ground role,' he said. `Without air superiority, you don't move troops very well on the ground.'
The increased emphasis on determining what will be required in an AX aircraft to support ground operations has been largely spurred by the roles and missions review. With the demise of the Soviet threat, the Navy is now shifting its focus toward power projection from the sea in regional conflicts.
Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe said that while the Navy required an aircraft that could accomplish the missions now carried out by the A-6, the future emphasis will be on `littoral' conflicts, involving coastal and amphibious operations. That means `a shorter range, bring-an-awful-lot-of-ordnance-to-bear capability that could be provided for Marine landings,' he said. `That doesn't mean you have to go incredible distances.'
Mixson said that while range is an important consideration, he was more concerned with endurance, which is an important factor in flexibility for carrier operations.
`What I want is an airplane that I can send out on a mission and have it come back and land aboard ship without refueling on a nominal carrier cycle of about 1 hr. 45 min.,' he said. `That translates to an endurance of a little over 2 hr.'
Along with that comes a certain amount of range, roughly 600 naut. mi. `With a 600-naut.-mi. range and that endurance I've got a lot of flexibility,' he said.
`That doesn't mean we are out of the strike role,' Mixson said. `That's still an important part of our mission. But I think we are focusing a little bit more on support of troops ashore than we might have in the past with our `Open Water' maritime strategy.'