THE United States - despite cuts in its defense budget - is moving ahead with plans to sink as much as $100 billion into a new supersonic attack fighter.
Defense planners want to build at least 2,916 planes. If full funding is approved by Congress, it will be the largest US tactical aircraft development program ever. .
The new stealth-type aircraft, developed and built over the next 20 years, would serve three major branches of the military - the Air Force, Navy, and Marines.
Pentagon planners say that at an estimated $35 million each, the new aircraft will be a relative bargain. By contrast, the Air Force's newest air-superiority fighter, the F-22, will cost at least $162 million each.
The JAST (Joint Advanced Strike Technology) fighter is a descendant of several late '80s aircraft programs that didn't
get much beyond the design stage. As a ''one size fits all'' fighter, it's a concept that many in the military have been leery of in the past. But a combination of defense cuts, technological advances, and new mission profiles have given US military services a new outlook on sharing resources - and JAST is now moving towards the prototype stage of development
Three competitive design contracts for the JAST fighter have been let over the past eight months to Lockheed Martin Company, Boeing, and a corporate triumvirate of McDonnell Douglas, Northrup Grumman, and British Aerospace.
Two firms will be selected next year to build two flying prototypes each for the multi-service plane. One company will be chosen around 2001 to manufacture and oversee preliminary test flights.. The huge contract could mean thousands of jobs. It could also mark a turning point, either for better or worst, for some large US aerospace firms.
Marine Col. James Durham, of the Tactical Aircraft Division at the Secretary of Defense, calls this the first ground-up effort to build a plane modifiable for all three services.
In the 1960s, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed the idea of modifying planes for use by many services. The F-111, a fighter-bomber built for dual use by the Navy and Air Force, was plagued by technical problems in its early years and, in the end, flown only by the Air Force.
The Navy, Air Force, and Marines did all fly the F-4, which was originally designed as a Navy plane. But the Air Force stripped it down to make it lighter and many in the Air Force were not satsified with the F-4.
Unlike land-based jets employed by the Air Force, the Navy needs an aircraft with larger wings, more powerful initial thrust, and stronger structure that can perform quick takeoffs and handle punishing landings on aircraft carriers.
Air Force mission profiles require aircaft that are relatively thinner,so as to be smaller targets. They also must be lighter, faster, more maneuverable, and able to fly further on the same amount of fuel than a carrier-based jet.
The Marines want planes similar to the Air Force's, with one major exception - they want one that also has short takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) capability. The Marines now use the AV-8BV, a British-designed plane with such capability, known as the Harrier. But the Harrier, first flown in 1966, is becoming outdated.
The JAST fighter would replace the Air Force's F-16 and A-10, the Navy's A-6, as well as the Marine's AV-8B and FA-18s.
The British Royal Navy is already considering buying 100 of the ASTOVLs. The US Navy would buy 300 of their carrier version. And the Air Force would buy 1,874 of the JAST aircraft.
In the past, the different needs of the services, plus traditional inter-service rivalry, have blocked production of a true tri-service fighter in the past.
What has changed?
''It was our weapons-system contractors who first suggested this solution,'' says Air Force Maj. Gen. George Muellner, director of the JAST program, which is jointly funded by the three participating branches of the military. ''All three of the services are now convinced the program can meet their needs,'' he says. ''They know the money is not there'' for three separate designs.
Several developments contribute to the current multi-service cooperation, says General Muellner, including:
* The ratio of engine thrust to weight has gone up significantly over the years. This means the same size engine now can perform STOVL tasks, or thrust a plane off of a carrier quickly in the traditional way, and/or speed it along fast enough and far enough to make the Air Force happy.
* New construction techniques, utilizing composite materials, mean far fewer parts, cheaper manufacturing, more strength, and less weight. Thus a very strong common air frame can be designed, with modern computers and software, that will have a reduced signature, or contour, and also be modifiable to meet the needs of the three services.
* The services now have a much more common set of needs, in respect to their missions, in weapons-delivery systems, for example, in ingress to and egress from targets, and in other areas.
''So many expensive programs were cancelled in the past, and so much money wasted, and funds are so limited now, that the DOD and Congress finally got together this program in a form that no one can cancel,'' says an engineering consultant to the Department of Defense. ''The companies have been asked to change how planes are manufactured and to get out of the cost spiral.... all of the studies so far do make it look doable,'' she concludes
Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia says he is concerned about providing three ''significantly different variants'' and doing so at a low cost. But he adds, ''Considering future resources, we need to make this concept work.''
Advances in technology and design make the program doable today, says David Wheaton, Lockheed Martin's vice president for business development and the firm's JAST program manager. His firm is already testing a large-scale model that contains a patented shaft-driven lift fan for vertical takeoffs. Boeing and the McDonnell Douglas-led team are testing other lift technology, General Muellner says.
The lift technology for the ASTOVL plane is especially challenging. The Lockheed and Boeing designs both utilize only the power of the plane's one engine. Boeing's design shoots exhaust downward in the lift phase, like the current Harrier, while Lockheed's design depends on a shaft-driven lift fan. The McDonnell Douglas team will utilize the exhaust of a second, small engine, as well some power from the main engine, for the lift phase.
All three of the corporate competitors in JAST have selected the F-119 engine, already developed for the F-22 by Pratt & Whitney, for their prototype engine. Congress has expressed some concern about the engine design.
But Gen. Muellner says JAST will help General Electric move forward on its F-110 engine. Competition, he says, will help keep total engine costs down, encourage further improvements, and provide an option if the F-119 becomes unavailable.
JAST, General Muellner says, does all of its contracts electronically and conducts most of its business on the Internet. ''We let $130 million in contracts earlier this year with no paper at all,'' he says. A full review of JAST information is available on the Internet at: