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Advanced-Attack / Advanced/Fighter-Attack (A-X / A/F-X) 1992-1993

In January 1991, with the cancellation of the ATA and the NATF, the Secretary of the Navy directed that planning commence for a new A-6 replacement program. This new program became the known as the A-X, an advanced, "high-end," carrier-based multi-mission aircraft with day/night/all-weather capability, low observables, long range, two engines, two-crew, and advanced, integrated avionics and countermeasures. The Air Force participated in this new program from its initiation, still seeking a replacement for the F-111 and, in the longer term, the F-15E and F-117A.

The A-X was a joint program with participation by the Navy and the Air Force to replace current strike aircraft that are completing their service lives. The A-X would replace the Navy A-6 and the Air Force F-111, F-15E, and F-117. The A-X would offer major advantages over both the F-111 and A-6, some of which will be as much as 42 years old by the time the first A-X squardron was to become active with the Navy or the Air Force. The multi-mission capability of the A-X would provide the tools necessary to execute successfully any mission assigned. Its technology would be state-of-the-art, designed to neutralize future threats and to provide superb weapons delivery capability. The A-X was intended to be fast, highly maneuverable, and able to conduct a wide variety of autonomous missions. It was to be able to employ air-to-air missiles, antiradiation missiles, precision guided munitions, and unguided or dumb bombs. It was to have the latest survivability upgrades.

The A/F-X was designed as a multi-role attack/fighter aircraft for the Navy and a deep interdiction aircraft for the Air Force in response to a joint operational requirements document. The A/F-X is expected to have a new airframe configuration that incorporates advanced low-observable and associated materials technologies. The engine was to be from a new generation of engines exemplified by significant improvements in thrust-to-weight ratio and operation at high levels of turbine inlet temperature. The aircraft's avionics suite is expected to draw heavily on the integrated avionics from the F-22 program.

The Navy launched the AX program -- successor to the A-12 which was terminated for default by Secretary of Defense Cheney -- with a design competition planned for the concept exploration and definition phase. According to the Secretary of Defense, the AX was expected to possess a significant air-to-air and air-to-ground capability for both offensive and defensive purposes.

Contracts of $20M each were awarded to five contractor teams on 30 December 1991 (prime contractor listed first):

  • Grumman/Lockheed/Boeing
  • Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics
  • McDonnell Douglas/Vought
  • Rockwell/Lockheed
  • General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas/Northrop

The original A-X / A/F-X CE/D work was due to be completed in September 1992. A solicitation for Demonstration/Validation (Dem/Val) proposals was expected in late 1992, leading to a Dem/Val start in 1994 and EMD in 1996. Under the Navy's original plan, the short Dem/Val phase would consist of design refinements and other risk reduction activities, but would not include flying prototypes. However, in late 1992 Congress directed that the A-X Dem/Val phase also include competitive prototyping. This increased the projected duration of the Dem/Val phase from two to five years. Concurrently, as a result of the termination of the NATF in 1991, increased air-to-air requirements were added to the A-X, prompting a change in the name of the Program from Advanced Attack (A-X) to Advanced Attack/Fighter (A/F-X).

This competition would have seen two teams selected to build prototype aircraft. That phase was to be followed by the selection of one contractor for the crucial demonstration and validation [DemVal] phase. The existing A-X CE/D contracts were extended to reflect a revised Dem/Val strategy to accommodate flying prototypes. The expected IOC date of the A/F-X slipped from 2006 to 2008. A Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) Milestone I Review of the A/F-X Program was expected in Spring 1993; however, the BUR placed the A/F-X program on hold pending the outcome of the report. An Milestone I DAB for the A/F-X never took place. The Navy later rejected the idea of competitive prototypes for the AX as too expensive. The AX program, while intended to develop a less costly successor to the A-12, was nevertheless expected to cost at least $14,000,000,000.

The degree to which the AX could perform both air-to-air, as well as air-to-ground, missions, was an important consideration being defined during 1992. The specific mix of combat capabilities and airframe performance parameters was defined in the concept exploration phase of the AX program in 1992, as competing industry design teams formulated their specific proposals to meet the Navy's broad set of tentative operational requirements.

The Defense Science Board Task Force on Aircraft Assessment was convened to respond to direction received from Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993, (Public Law 102-484). The Task Force first met on 21 January 1993; OSD requested the report be provided on 25 February 1993. During this time the Task Force met seven times.

Because the A/F-X program was still undergoing a design competition before Dem/Val, it was simply too early for the Task Force to make a technical risk assessment of the A/F-X aircraft. The A/F-X mission requirements for both the Navy and Air Force appear to be achievable, and the Navy is managing the program at this time to ensure adequate performance margins, including carrier suitability. Tradeoffs of cost, performance, and other requirements have been important elements of the current phase of the program Once prototype designs are submitted, a meaningful assessment of the A/F-X aircraft's technical risk can be made. The planned Dem/Val program appeared to be structured to accommodate a substantial risk reduction effort.

A/F-X requirements called for a level of &sign innovation that justified a flying prototype before the start of E&MD. The A/F-X program was planned to follow an acquisition strategy for competitive prototyping of the aircraft during Dem/Val. If the design competition leading to Dem/Val provides a clear winner, then a single design could be prototyped. Because the A/F-X is likely to employ avionics concepts and common equipment from the F-22 program, avionics prototype testing in a flying testbed may be required only for selected components, systems integration and software.

Although the A/F-X was still in an early stage of development, the Navy and Air Force succeeded in arriving at a high degree of compatibility in the aircraft characteristics to meet their respective mission requirements. It was also planned that this aircraft will incorporate avionics having a substantial degree of commonality with the F-22.

The 1993 budget request contained $165.6 million to continue concept development of the AX medium attack aircraft for the Navy and the Air Force. During action in 1992 on this request, the House authorized $760.6 million for development of the AX, and required a competitive prototype strategy for the AX aircraft emphasizing current generation stealth technology and existing engines, radars, and avionics, with the competitive prototype phase be completed by no later than 1996. The Senate authorized a total of $50.0 million for AX development, and also endorsed a competitive prototype acquisition strategy. The Congress approved the $165.6 million as requested, and directed that that the Department of Defense should utilize current generation stealth technology and, to the maximum feasible extent, engines, radars, and avionics systems that exist or are in development.

The 14 July 1993 Defense Science Board Task Force on Tactical Aircraft Bottom Up Review found that the analytical foundation established by the BUR team provided valuable insights. The results demonstrated the value of survivability (driven principally by low observables), and swing capability (both air-to-air and air-to-ground capability), especially in combination. The results, therefore, reinforced the capabilities associated with the "F-22+" and the A/F-X. These capabilities supported the objective of maintaining overwhelming air superiority and the ability to strike the full range of targets with minimum attrition from day one.

The analytical results did not significantly discriminate between the F-18E/F and F-18C/D in a force which includes the F-22 and the A/F-X. However, during the expected ten year gap between the F-18E/F and A/F-X operational capability, the F-18E/F provided a significant enhancement. In addition to the roughly 30% improvement assessed in the performance model, the F-18E/F provided added flexibility in carrier operations, and includes provisions for growth which are limited by the current "F-18C/D airframe.

While the Defense Science Board Task Force strongly supported the need for the A/F-X, it was concerned about the program structure. The current program required $20 billion of research and development expenditures with significant operational capability not achieved for 20 years. Amortization of R&D is likely to approach $100 million per aircraft for the first production block by extrapolating current trends and consider only Navy use. The DSB suggested that a better approach to obtaining high end capability in limited numbers may be the dual airframe, common components approach which was recommended for JAF. The F-18E/F provided significant enhancement relative to the F-18C/D until the A/F-X enters the inventory in significant numbers (2010).

The Task Force observed that the tactical air community was not sufficiently well informed about US bomber capability and vice versa. The mutual understanding needs to be improved, so that the US can better exploit the synergy of long range bomber and tactical air employed jointly. It also called for a better understanding of the alternatives available to obtain deep strike. Besides longer range for tactical aircraft, the Task Force suggested considering bombers, shorter range f tactical aircraft with buddy refueling (to include refueling over enemy territory), standoff weapons, and TLAM launched from vertical tubes on ships. There was no new start program for the Navy operating alone that won't leave a significant time gap for deep strike. Perhaps the most critical issue was to better understand the number and nature of deep strike targets.

Accounting for future airframes (e.g. A/F-X) and upgrades, it seemed appropriate to keep separate track of recapitalization for engines, avionics, weapons, racks, launchers, low observable treatment of external stores, etc. In a future enironment with dramatically reduced production rates and much smaller production blocks, we will need to rationalize the ' critical. supporting subsystems to best support development and upgrade of multiple airframes.

On 1 September 1993, the release of the BUR announced the cancellation of the A/F-X as well as the MRF. As a result of the BUR, A/F-X efforts during the latter half of 1993 were directed toward closing out the program and transitioning applicable experience and results to the upcoming JAST program. In early 1993 the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that canceling the Navy's AX tactical aircraft program would save $3.6 billion over 5 years, under the theory that the FA-18E/F was adequate for another decade.

A core of A/F-X personnel performed a large portion of the working-level planning and definition of the emerging JAST Program. The A/F-X CE/D contracts were extended a second time, through 17 December 1993, to allow the contractors sufficient time to bring their activities to a logical conclusion. Each of the four teams received $3.3 M contracts to close out their efforts because the airplane was deemed unaffordable. At one time Vought had over 150 people working on the project full and part time, including a contingent of McDonnell Douglas people. All A/F-X program operations ended on 31 December 1993.

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