Navy, AF to Collaborate on New Planes : Will Set Aside Decades of Competition in Attempt to Save Billions

Times Staff Writer

The Navy and the Air Force, trying to set aside four decades of competition, have agreed to join forces in the initial development of new airplanes to determine whether similar aircraft can be designed at a potential savings of several billion dollars, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

As their newest airplanes are still being introduced to units around the world, the two services already have begun work on new radar-eluding technology for the Stealth plane.

Under an agreement announced at the Pentagon, the Navy and Air Force will monitor each other's research on aerodynamic designs, internal aircraft structures and electronic equipment that can be developed to serve a new Navy fighter and a new Air Force bomber that will be deployed in the late 1990s.

75% Savings Seen

Officials predicted that the cost of developing a new plane could be cut by as much as 75% to 80% through the use of common designs, and that as much as 90% of the planes could be similar.

Historically, the Navy has objected the most strenuously to proposals that it cooperate with the other branches. But Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said that "these are very major steps we're taking. It's an important initiative. It's never been tried before."

Air Force Secretary Russell A. Rourke, who appeared with Lehman at a Pentagon news conference, added: "We are going to cooperate. We are going to work together."

Each service is in the early stages of work on new airplanes--the Navy's Advanced Tactical Aircraft and the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter. They would have different missions, structural requirements and weapons. The Navy plane would replace the carrier-based, aging A-6 ground-attack jet, and the Air Force plane would replace the F-15.

Replacements for Fighter

However, sometime in the 1990s, the Navy expects to replace its top-flight fighter, the F-14, and the Air Force expects to build a new ground-attack plane to replace the nearly 20-year-old F-111B. Officials hope that technology from the new Air Force fighter can be employed in the Navy fighter and that work on the Navy's attack aircraft can be adapted for the Air Force bomber.

"We're talking about saving billions of dollars," said Donald A. Hicks, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

Rourke said that the new Air Force fighters would cost no more than $35 million each and that the service wants to buy 750 of them. Lehman said that the Navy wants to buy 450 attack aircraft. Although the costs are classified, Lehman said: "For the record, they will not exceed the Air Force's."

Because of their unique military missions, fighters and ground-attack planes are not interchangeable. Fighters are built for speed and maneuverability, and carry relatively lightweight munitions. Ground-attack planes, or bombers, are built to fly greater distances than fighters and to carry heavy bombs.

Should the two services find that they can cooperate at the early stages of aircraft development, they would reverse a pattern that has evolved over many years. The Navy, in effect operating its own air force from carrier decks, has charted an independent path, insisting that its planes should be placed in a different category from the Air Force because they are required to fly over water, take off from ship-shaking catapults and slam onto only a few yards of pitching deck.

Unable to Land on Carrier

"If you take an (Air Force) F-16 and try to launch (it) off a carrier, it will tend to come apart," one Navy officer said.

Navy planes are built with stronger landing struts than Air Force jets to absorb the shock of landing on the short runways of a carrier deck. They also have special fuel tank bladders for protection against shipboard fires and carry different weapons and electronic technology.

In a 2 1/2-page document signed by Lehman and Rourke, the services agreed to cooperate on the projects through Sept. 30, 1990.

Rather than developing two new planes with similar missions, the document said, it is "imperative that both the Navy and the Air Force thoroughly examine potential cross-service applications" of the Air Force fighter and the Navy attack plane "to fill possible future requirements."

Although efforts have been made in the past to adapt the planes of one service for use by the other, officials said that no such projects have begun at such an early stage. "This is the first time this approach has been started at takeoff," Lehman said.

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