Boeing Co. pursues new multiservice jet fighter Firm back in fray after 59 years

November 05, 1993|By Bloomberg Business News

WASHINGTON -- Boeing Co. is pursuing a new military jet that could put it back in the fighter plane business for the first time in almost 60 years.

And Boeing isn't talking of just getting back in the business; it's pondering re-entering on a grand scale with a fighter that could ++ serve the Air Force, fly from carriers for the Navy and lift off vertically for the Marines.

The aircraft would be "what we think is the fighter of the future," says Peri Widener, spokeswoman for Boeing's Defense and Space Group. "It would be very small, very lightweight, and very low cost."

The plane might replace Lockheed Corp.'s F-16, and McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s AV-8B and F-18 planes after 2015.

Boeing announced its plans in a news release yesterday, to the astonishment of many in the aerospace industry.

"I'm surprised to see this from Boeing," says Bill Dane, senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Connecticut research firm. "It has been decades since they actually made a fighter."

Fifty-nine years exactly, since Boeing introduced the P-36 for what was then the Army Air Corps. More recently, Boeing has built bombers for the Air Force, most notably the B-52, and has converted many of its commercial planes for military transport use.

Boeing said it has been working on the fighter concept for about two years with help from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's high-tech shop. The cost and size of the plane, which doesn't even have a name yet, are still open questions. Nor did the company say where it would be built.

"They're breaking new ground," says Bert Cooper, aircraft analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "Although anything is possible in the concept stage, technologically it may not make sense."

A plane for all services may not make sense to the military, either. The services haven't been able to cooperate on a joint plane in the past, and their different needs and attitudes may not have changed.

"Multiservice airplanes traditionally don't do well," Mr. Dane says.

Devising a plane capable of ground and aircraft carrier landings is difficult. This summer the A/FX jet project was canceled in part because the Air Force and Navy couldn't agree on specifications and design.

Navy airframes have reinforced landing gear and specialized equipment to survive the slamming of aircraft carrier landings. Thus, Navy planes are relatively heavy.

The Air Force lands on immobile runways. Air Force planes have less durable landing gear and are lighter.

Add to those differences that Boeing believes its plane could take off vertically or from short runways -- similar to the V-22 aircraft it and Textron Inc. are building for the Marines -- and it's understandable analysts have doubts.

"This really sounds like somebody's dream sheet," Mr. Dane says.

Not so, says Ms. Widener. "It's a practical idea, and it's a good idea," she says. "It's based on recent technology advancements and some real strides in production techniques."

The all-purpose fighter will live or die on Boeing's ability to exploit composite materials and modular production techniques.

"Composites would really make it lightweight and low cost," Ms. Widener says. Boeing says the modular production would "allow different versions of the airplane to be built on the same factory production line, minimizing assembly costs" and allowing for a variety of configurations.

The company could have a firm proposal ready by 1996, she says.

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