Fighter of future hits turbulence

2 fierce competitors for Joint Strike Fighter are mired in overruns

Pentagon wants answers

Boeing modifies entry in favor of more conventional plane


April 18, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Deep within Lockheed Martin Corp.'s mile-long fighter plane factory here is a shrine to a plane that has never flown.

There is a full-scale mock-up made of wood and fiberglass and a powered model so intricate that the tiny pilot even moves his head. Computer screens, diagrams and a startlingly large hologram are arranged like a high-technology museum across 15,000 square feet.

The object of all this corporate burnishment is the Joint Strike Fighter, a program hailed as the future of not only the Fort Worth factory but of military aviation as a whole.

In the past few months, though, a series of problems has cast shadows across the urgent contest between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. to win the job of building 2,912 Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force, Navy, Marines and the British Royal Navy -- which at $219 billion would be the biggest Pentagon contract ever.

Both companies are struggling with cost overruns on what had been a spotless program, and Boeing has taken the risky step of redesigning its entry at a crucial stage of the competition.

Now the Pentagon has instructed both companies to submit a new plan by the end of the month for meeting cost and schedule targets.

"What we've seen over the last few weeks is really defensive announcements on the part of all the players," said Brett Lambert, an industry expert with the DFI International consulting firm in Washington. "Boeing clearly is concerned about the impact a new design will have on their ability to compete, Lockheed Martin is concerned about price escalation and the military is concerned about both."

Not to mention Congress, which has been skittish about the Joint Strike Fighter's huge price. The current turmoil is the first sign of disarray within the program, and defense leaders such as Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon are calling for closer scrutiny.

"It's not exactly on death row, but this is a bend in the road for the Joint Strike Fighter," said Bert Cooper, who advises Congress on military aviation for the Congressional Research Service.

An extraordinary amount is at stake, even by the standards of big defense contracts. The program played a major role in the recent consolidation of the defense industry, helping to reduce the number of U.S. warplane builders to two.

Bethesda's Lockheed Martin and Seattle's Boeing were picked to compete for the jet- fighter in November 1996. A third company, McDonnell Douglas, lost out and was almost immediately purchased and absorbed by Boeing. With no other big airplane contracts on the Pentagon's horizon, Northrop Grumman Corp. proclaimed itself out of the prime contracting business for aircraft and signed up to work with Lockheed Martin on its Joint Strike Fighter entry, along with British Aerospace.

So Lockheed Martin and Boeing are left vying to build a versatile, single-engine plane that would have the capability to both engage in dogfights and bomb ground targets. The fighter should be able to go farther with more weapons than any plane of its class now flying, while the image it projects on radar screens is to be no bigger than a golf ball.

The plane, which is expected to enter service in 2008, will have to come in three versions:

A basic model to replace the F-16 for the Air Force, which wants to buy 1,763.

A heavier version to supplement and replace the F/A-18 for the Navy, which wants to buy 480.

And a short-takeoff/vertical-landing type to replace the AV-8B Harrier for the Marines, which want 609, and the British Royal Navy, which wants 60.

Several countries have signed onto the program as observers, leading the aerospace industry to anticipate an additional $300 billion in foreign sales. Part of the reason Lockheed Martin installed the elaborate exhibit in Texas was to impress potential foreign customers.

Lockheed Martin's team generally has been perceived as the favorite in the competition. Its conservative design is based on the company's F-22 fighter plane, which is scheduled to enter service in 2004.

Lockheed Martin also has the most to lose in the competition. Its factory in Fort Worth, which builds the F-16, will virtually run out of work if it loses the Joint Strike Fighter competition.

"It may not be the end of the aircraft business in Lockheed Martin, by a long shot, but it is do or die for Fort Worth," said James A. "Micky" Blackwell, president of Lockheed Martin's Aeronautics Sector.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing each have a $700 million contract to build two demonstrator planes to prove they can meet the program's basic requirements. Those demonstrators will fly next year, and the Pentagon will pick a winner in 2001.

Two months ago, a military review of the programs revealed that both were running over budget.

"It cost us more to build the two demonstrators than we recognized," said Harry Blot, Lockheed Martin's deputy program manager for the Joint Strike Fighter.

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