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The UnFriendly Skies

U.S. defense contractors are building costly air-based systems that think, see and fight like never before. Will this prepare us for the conflicts of tomorrow?

By Wendy Wolfson, Photo by Patrick O’Connor

NO ADMITTANCE: Tom Arseneault ’85 and Tom Fitzpatrick ’68, both vice presidents at BAE SYSTEMS in Nashua, N.H., know the aviation defense industry from the inside out.

For nearly a decade, the mantra for the U.S. Armed Forces has been “transformation.” As the military works to become a more agile and flexible fighting force, advanced aviation technology is crucial to the process.

The complexity of today’s airborne weaponry, both planes and missiles, especially their guidance and communications systems, is staggering. So are the capabilities. Ground- and sea-based interceptors can shoot down high-altitude ballistic missiles. Fighter planes and ships are invisible to radar. A device that looks like a baby R2D2 sits on a helicopter and spins around to train a laser beam at the nose cone of a missile to blind it. Satellite-based information systems scan a battlefield and amass millions of bits of intelligence. Soldiers can tap into the network and retrieve relevant information in real time. Aircraft systems are so complex that several contractors are needed to tackle different aspects of them.

The costs of these platforms stagger as well. “Is this stuff affordable?” asks Steve Kosiak, a defense policy researcher at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), an independent think-tank based in Washington, D.C. “As we look forward to the retirement of baby boomers at the end of this decade, we are facing a much bleaker fiscal picture over the next few years. Yet, costs are rising. The Department of Defense requested that the current level of military spending of over $400 billion be raised to over $500 billion in 2009. There is a real question whether this kind of funding is possible or practical, given the other budget constraints.”

Thomas Fitzpatrick ’68, vice president and deputy general manager of the electronic warfare and electronic protection division at BAE SYSTEMS of Nashua, N.H., is leading his company’s development of electronic warfare suites on the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. An ROTC student, Fitzpatrick graduated from WPI with a degree in mechanical engineering “in the heat of the debates of the Vietnam War,” joined the Army, then entered private industry to work on major defense platforms, such as the Abrams Tank.

Fitzpatrick agrees with Kosiak that despite increases, the military budget is still limited. “At any point in time, the defense budget will contain salaries and replenishment of munitions used in Iraq,” says Fitzpatrick. “There are operations and support costs. We are replacing an aging aircraft fleet. Each one of those elements of defense spending is constrained by the others. We cannot do that and pay salaries at the same time.”

Dozens of aviation defense contractors helped create the F-22, the world’s first fighter to introduce all-aspect stealth as well as supercruise—supersonic flight without afterburners. The F-22 goes into service in late 2004.

Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Internet, resources devoted to the aviation needs of the military are unlikely to result in innovation for the civilian sector. “While all of us in the defense industry invest in technology, it is more applied technology than basic research,” Fitzpatrick says.

The multibillion dollar F-22 and JSF programs are among the largest government aircraft procurement programs in existence. System development can span a human generation. Development of the F-22 began in the early 1980s; the plane is just now going into production. On a similar time frame, the JSF is now edging into development. “We will be involved for the next 30 years in those two things,” says Thomas Arseneault ’85, vice president of engineering at BAE SYSTEMS. “To combat obsolescence, every major weapons system is now designed with open architecture so it can be upgraded as technology changes. The Department of Defense developed this strategy from watching the computer makers.”

What does the military mantra of transformation mean to a defense contractor like BAE SYSTEMS? Arseneault says, for example, that a single plane is now developed in different versions for the Navy and the Air Force instead of the previous practice of each service developing its own aircraft. “There is an emphasis on C4ISR, which means Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,” says Arseneault. “The idea being, how does one interconnect all these systems?”

The Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, embodies the U.S. military’s mantra of transformation. More than 80 percent of its parts are common to all three JSF variants making future upgrades and software updates easier and more affordable. Its integrated weapon system allows pilots to identify and strike moving targets day or night, in all weather. Because of its multiplatform communications system—on-board and off-board information fusion—pilots work as tacticians rather than weapons system managers.

“One of the major trends right now is designing affordable platforms from the ground up for multifunctional systems,” says Mike Sarcione ’84, chief engineer for integrated defense systems engineering at Raytheon. “The idea is to put applications onto common hardware, but define the functions by software that can be easily upgraded.”

An area of expertise for Raytheon is stealth. The military wants “low observables [such as stealth bombers, fighters and surface ships] so we can see the enemy before he sees us,” says Sarcione, who oversees technology strategy across all of Raytheon’s business units. Raytheon, along with Northrup Grumman, is involved in developing sensors and radar systems for the Navy’s new DD-X destroyer.

These sophisticated communications platforms work by creating an ever-better buffer between our troops and the enemy. And, according to Tom Fitzpatrick, that’s just what Americans want: no or low loss of life.

“Perhaps the most profound changes that I’ve seen [in my career] are driven by our national desire to protect ourselves and not have any casualties,” Fitzpatrick says. “We are trying to protect our warfighters while engaging the enemy with precision.” This has translated into communications programs that can provide perfect knowledge of where the enemy is located, enabling our forces to engage at a distance with precision guided missiles. “So, the Abrams tank has the best armor in the world,” says Fitzpatrick, “and our airplanes are invisible to radar.”

In other words, we’re well equipped to overwhelm the enemy by technological superiority in a conventional war. Asymmetrical warfare, terrorism and post-conflict occupation pose different challenges, just as the United States experienced on its own soil on 9-11 and in the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Keeping a Safe Distance: Raytheon’s X-band radar for missile defense, infrared imaging on combat vehicles, mobile target acquisition systems, and extended range missiles all serve to create an ever- better buffer between our troops and the enemy.

Still, studies find that the American public will tolerate significant casualties if they perceive goals as important, says Kosiak. But can a military geared to fighting a war by sophisticated weaponry be just as safe from harm while keeping the peace at street level? “An army that is used to fighting conventional conflicts,” he says, “might not be adapted to fighting a guerrilla conflict.”

“The whole idea of engaging from a safe distance is something you cannot do when occupying a country.” Fitzpatrick says. “I think that there is an understanding on the part of the terrorists that our nation is not going to tolerate this for very long. The continued losses will have an effect on the population. We try to provide our soldiers with every element of life-saving precaution we can. In the end, technology is not a perfect answer.”

But it can help. Raytheon is now developing people-deterrence technologies under the auspices of the new Department of Homeland Security. “There are systems in development now that will prevent an aggressor from getting close to a soldier. It will not terminate the aggressor, but it will stop him in his tracks,” says Sarcione. “Development had been ongoing for at least four years prior to 9-11. It is based on traditional technology that’s used in an unusual way.”

Likewise, the Wolfpack project, being developed under DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Project Administration), embodies close-contact defense high-tech transformation for the individual soldier. Wolfpack is a cluster of autonomous sensors that soldiers carry in their backpacks and scatter on the ground. Like ants, the sensors self-organize into packs to do surveillance and jam enemy communications.

Critics are concerned that we aren’t investing enough money on these flexible, smaller-scale weapons, and are instead putting our defense dollars and faith in huge platforms—longer-term established massive programs such as the JSF and the F-22. Some worry that a disproportional amount of money is being funneled into short-range tactical aircraft instead of long-range interdiction, especially given the difficulties we encounted in both Afghanistan and Iraq in getting access to bases in the region.

The defense contractors are doing what they do best, organizing programs of technology, logistics and labor to create sophisticated weapons. Platforms tend to be self-perpetuating unless curbed by budgetary or political restraint. There is always an economic tradeoff between guns and butter—or guns and guns. For industry insiders, the real question seems to be whether the platforms we are committing to now will prepare us for the kinds of wars we’ll need to fight in the future. If we are indeed transforming ourselves, to what end?

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Last modified: Sep 01, 2004, 14:02 EDT
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