THOUGH its outline is still classified, the new jet may look like a giant black dart. Fast enough to cruise at the speed of sound, able to leap through radar waves without being detected, the Advanced Technology Fighter (ATF) sounds like the United States wonder plane of the 21st century. Now under development by the Air Force, the ATF is intended to replace the F-15 and be superior to next-generation Soviet counterparts. Air Force goals call for the new plane to use advanced materials and electronic technology, all at affordable cost and with twice the reliability of today's fighters.
``We have some very challenging performance requirements,'' says Lt. Gen. Mike Loh, commander of the Air Force Aeronautical Systems Division.
Too challenging, say some critics. While B-2 Stealth bomber test flights and price tags made headlines this summer, the House Appropriations Committee quietly turned its sights on the ATF instead, eliminating all funds for the plane from the Pentagon's fiscal 1990 budget.
When the dust settles this fall Congress will likely restore ATF money. The Senate so far has not looked so skeptically at the program. House Committee members say they just wanted to send the Air Force a message: Watch out, or this plane could become as controversial as the B-2.
The appropriations panel has ``deep concerns over the acquisition strategy, costs, and technical risks associated with the current ATF program,'' says a report accompanying its 1990 bill.
Few members of Congress dispute the need for a new air-superiority fighter. The F-15 represents early 1970s technology, while the newest Soviet models have impressed Western analysts in a series of unprecedented air-show flights. In its first appearance outside the Soviet Union at this year's Paris Air Show, the Soviet SU-27 interceptor demonstrated a maneuver called ``Pougachev's Cobra'' in which it pitched up and slid through the air tail-first. Western fighters can't do that, although the usefulness of the move in combat is in dispute.
The ATF program was launched in late 1981, with a target of fielding a new fighter in the mid-1990s. Air Force plans call for purchasing some 750 ATFs, at a total estimated cost of $64.3 billion. If the Navy buys a beefed-up version of the ATF to replace the F-14, as it is now committed to do, total ATF program costs are likely to surpass the $70 billion B-2 price tag.
Two teams of contractors are competing for this rich procurement prize. Lockheed, teamed with General Dynamics and Boeing, is building an ATF design dubbed YF-22A; Northrop, teamed with McDonnell Douglas, is building the YF-23A. Prototypes will fly early next year, with a winner scheduled to be picked sometime in 1991.
The contractor teams are facing tough requirements. The Air Force has set ATF goals of a 50,000-pound weight and a flyaway cost of $41 million in 1990 dollars. The winning design must be more maneuverable than an F-15, much less detectable on radar, and able to take off on much shorter runways.
Goals call for the ATF to break down an average of half as often as the F-15, while requiring an average of only nine maintenance people per aircraft instead of the F-15's 21. Perhaps most challenging of all is the speed requirement: The Air Force expects the ATF to fly supersonic without using a fuel-guzzling afterburner. Such a capability would allow the aircraft to travel at high speed for an unprecedented length of time; but to carry it off a whole new generation of engines may be required.
``The ATF engine is probably the first time we've really moved engine technology since the late 1960s,'' says Brian Brimelow, vice president for government programs at General Electric, one of two companies competing for the ATF engine contract.
To get all this cutting-edge technology into a fighter scheduled to be deployed in the mid-'90s, the Air Force has opted to hurry the ATF program along - make it ``concurrent,'' in Pentagon jargon. Current plans call for making at least a down payment on 172 aircraft before ATF full-scale development is finished, according to congressional documents.
The House Appropriations Committee complains that this haste is unacceptable, and could lead to technical troubles. ``Similar concurrency has been the root cause of problems with the B-1B, B-2, C-17, and the Advanced Cruise Missile,'' the committee report says.
The House panel also charges that the Air Force is unrealistic about the amount of money it will get for the ATF program when it is in production. Air Force plans call for a sustained production of 72 ATFs a year, a rate reached with the F-15 only in flush years.
ATF avionics cost predictions are far too low, complain the House critics, bringing into question ATF unit cost goals. And while Air Force performance requirements for the plane are ``noble,'' says the House panel, it isn't clear that all that expensive capability is really necessary.
General Loh, head of the division of the Air Force that is developing the ATF, says that ATF cost goals are ``still achievable.'' He adds that some of the parameters that affect cost, such as production rate, are not entirely under Air Force control.
Loh defends the ATF development schedule as prudent. It's easy to criticize the Air Force's use of concurrency, he says, if you ignore the fact that even with such a compressed timetable it still takes well over 10 years to field a major weapon.
``You can't fly before you buy at every phase of the program, then criticize the system for taking so long to develop something,'' he says.
Planning for an ATF production rate of 72 planes a year is pragmatic, says Loh, considering that original plans for the F-15 called for a never-achieved rate of 144 planes a year. And he says that performance goals for the new fighter are undergoing a trade-off process to make sure they are cost-effective. A requirement for engine thrust reversers, he says, was dropped when it turned out that tail hooks and arresting cables could be used much more cheaply for short-runway landings.
If asked, Air Force pilots will say that they still fly the best fighters in the world. But Loh says that may not be true, citing the impressive Soviet fighter performances at air shows from Paris to Canada. ``They're building fighters every bit as good as the F-15 and F-16,'' he insists.