Airlifters may be homely, but they could be lucrative Lockheed Martin eyes future market as transport fleet ages


October 24, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

"Top Gun" wouldn't have been quite the same movie if they had put Tom Cruise in a transport plane instead of a fighter jet, lumbering around delivering troops and pallets of entrenchment tools.

But to a defense contractor like Lockheed Martin Corp., even the homeliest barn with wings is a thing of beauty -- and good business.

Lockheed had a near lock on the airlift market for decades, building the majority of the military's workhorses from the giant C-5 to the versatile C-130 and C-141. Now the company sees its franchise endangered by rival Boeing Co., whose $200 million C-17 Globemaster is the Pentagon's newest and costliest member of the class.

Lockheed Martin has a new C-130J in production, but at roughly $45 million a copy, "it's unfortunately small potatoes compared to serious military airlift," said aircraft expert Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group consulting firm.

So Lockheed Martin has formed an internal task force to figure out what comes next. They don't call it airlift anymore -- it's "air mobility," and the company hopes it can anticipate what the military will want to buy in 2015.

"To have one in 2015 you have to start doing things about now," said Richard G. Kirkland, vice president for business development at Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems in Marietta, Ga.

Marietta has built the company's airlift planes, and Kirkland is heading the effort to pin down the future market.

"It's very sensible. Lockheed Martin, as part of its new international persona, is going to try to get that niche back with international support," Aboulafia said.

European countries have outlined an airlift need and proposed a Future Large Aircraft program, called FLA, but put no money behind it. Lockheed Martin failed last year to get those countries interested in a proposal of its own called World Airlifter, but Kirkland said the company remains committed to working overseas.

In fact, he said, international cooperation is a central part of his task force's vision of the future market.

"It will no longer be one company or one country that will design an airplane and bring it forward," he said.

The history of airlift goes back to World War II, he said, when the military realized that bombers could carry troops into places that ships and rail lines couldn't reach. Then the Berlin Airlift showed the potential for moving goods and supplies -- logistics -- on big air freighters.

Desert Storm was the first fully integrated airlift operation -- troops and logistics working with other parts of the military to quickly assemble a giant foreign operation from scratch.

That's the pattern for the future. Air mobility planes will have to perform multiple functions, from transporting to mid-air refueling, and integrate into the "electronic battlefield" that visionaries insist is on the way.

At the same time, though, new planes will have to be cheap.

Kirkland said that military versions of planes tend to cost at least 22 percent more than commercial versions because of special requirements. "We have got to make military airplanes equal to the cost you're going to have in commercial air freighters," he said.

His task force has set other goals for improving over current aircraft: reducing fuel consumption by 15 percent; weight by 20 percent to 25 percent; and overall cost of development by 30 percent.

To have any hope of achieving all that, Lockheed Martin will have to find new ways of doing things, especially by capitalizing on commercial manufacturing practices. Another cost-saver would be to create a modular family of planes: a single basic design that could swap tails, wings or other components for different functions.

Lockheed Martin is also looking at high-concept designs. One type, a "Blended Wing Body," would make the fuselage part of the wings -- sort of like the B-2 Stealth bomber. That design tends to yield a greater range.

An even more ambitious design is called the "Joined Wing Multi-Boom," which looks like some kind of futuristic box kite, with a pair of wings high on the back of the fuselage joined to another pair of wings low on the front.

Such a craft would have numerous rigid points where extendable booms could refuel other planes in flight, and would take up less space on the ground. While it would take computerized flight controls to make such an ungainly contraption stay aloft, Kirkland said the company has "neat video" of a scale model flying around.

Such leaps forward are rare in the airlifter market, where a few basic planes tend to stick around for a long, long time. The original version of the C-130 dates back to the 1950s. The last C-141 was delivered in the late 1960s, and they're still flying.

That's why Boeing's success with the C-17 could be so menacing. The Air Force is buying 120 of the $200 million planes, a relatively small and expensive fleet that could nonetheless establish a beachhead for the future.

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