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Future Strike Aircraft

Air Combat Command conducted the Future Strike Aircraft study with three airframe prime contractors - Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The FSA study looked out to the year 2030 and beyond, developing concepts for future bombers to meet the anticipated needs of the Air Force. The Air Force Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, wanted the study to address threat and technology growth in the 2030-35 time frame, while considering acceleration pressures for earlier replacement of older aircraft. The goals of the study were to present a credible, compelling vision of the FSA concept and to begin laying out a technology development roadmap. However, the FSA program has been allocated less than $1 million in funding and is not geared toward becoming a full-blown acquisition program.

Studies looked at designing a high-speed platform capable of global strike missions. This could range from a conventional aircraft capable of Mach 2.7 to a transatmospheric vehicle operating at up to Mach 14. The vehicle would be able to strike a target from the continental United States without refueling, though it might require refueling for its return. It would be capable of striking any target within 3 hours or less. The main issue is speed versus stealth, since the fastest vehicle would sacrifice stealth, while the stealthiest aircraft would be the slowest. Even though their capabilities overlap those of other strike weapon systems, cruise missiles have broadened the options available to commanders and have demonstrated that they are a viable strike capability in the absence of theater- or aircraft carrier-based strike aircraft. Therefore, most future strike aircraft may not require as long a range or as high a degree of stealth as originally planned.

In September 1999 Northrop Grumman Corporation's Integrated Systems and Aerostructures (ISA) Sector released technical renderings of advanced concepts it was exploring for a future strike aircraft (FSA) that could replace the current U.S. long-range bomber fleet. Northrop Grumman was working under a 12-month U.S. Air Force study contract to help refine requirements for the type of aircraft platform, weapons and technologies as part of a cost-effective system to achieve future strike capability. The Air Force selected Northrop Grumman ISA to be a major study participant because of its experience in building the world's most advanced bomber, the B-2 Spirit, as well as its expertise in integration, stealth technology, composites manufacturing, fighter aircraft and airframe manufacturing, electronics and unmanned vehicles.

Despite the diversity of potential programs, program uncertainties are a constant worry for defense aerospace prime contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Any slips or the cancellation of either the F-22 or the JSF aircraft programs would have significant near-term consequences for the engineering work force, be- cause of the absence of equivalent programs. Even if the JSF enters the EMD phase, there will be a 16-vear can between FY08 and FY24 before the Future Strike System is planned to enter the EMD phase. Therefore, even if the JSF enters the EMD phase on schedule, the work force faces an uncertain future

Some observers believe the Future Strike System will be similar to the airplane-like two-stage space launch systems. Some argue that the technology for a two-stage system is now at hand, and these technologies are the same ones the United States Air Force could use for a future strike system, the next generation bombers. Airplane-like access to space refers to a first stage of a two-stage system, that is highly reliable, has very short turn-around times, is launched on demand versus on schedule, is easily maintained, and can use multiple existing runways. The staging speed would be around Mach 4, in order to allow the airframe to be constructed with conventional materials. A combined cycle engine that starts out as a conventional turbine engine and converts to a ram-scram jet would provide for a gradual speed increase from 0 to Mach 4.



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