WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is nearing a second agreement to conduct an airworthiness assessment for an airplane it does not currently plan to buy — in this case, Lockheed Martin's FA-50 light attack aircraft.
On the heels of the Air Force's first-ever cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) to assess Textron AirLand's Scorpion jet, the service's new Non-DoD Military Aircraft (NDMA) Office is brokering a similar agreement with Lockheed Martin, said Robert FitzHarris, the NDMA Office team leader. A third agreement might not be too far behind.
"With respect to the Lockheed Martin aircraft, we're currently in pre-phase one, which means that we're setting up a potential CRADA that will enable us to perform the assessment," he told reporters in an Aug. 30 conference call. "It's currently at Lockheed Martin for legal review, and we don't control how long that takes, so we're at the mercy of the lawyers."
The Air Force has only recently begun conducting airworthiness assessments for aircraft it does not plan to procure, signing its first CRADA with Textron AirLand in July. Textron, and all companies that sign similar agreements, will be expected to foot the bill.
During an interview with Defense News, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that companies had come to her and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh with complaints about their ability to internationally sell aircraft that is not in the US inventory. By undergoing an airworthiness assessment through the Air Force, vendors can instill greater confidence in the minds of their international customers, thus paving the way for more foreign sales.
"Now what do we get out of it? A key thing that we need is we need able partners and we need allies who can help us around the world so that we don’t have the entire burden on the United States Air Force," James said. "So we view a healthy industrial base in the United States that is able to make sales appropriately overseas and contribute to increasing the capability of those partnerships and alliances. We consider that to be a win for the Air Force."
Unlike the Scorpion jet, Lockheed’s FA-50 — which it produces with KAI — has customers overseas but is more unfamiliar in the US market. The FA-50 is a more highly weaponized, light-attack version of the T-50 training aircraft that the companies plan to offer for the Air Force’s T-X competition.
Meanwhile, Raytheon, the other T-X competitor putting forth an existing design, has not sought out an airworthiness assessment. FitzHarris confirmed that Raytheon, which is offering Leonardo’s M-346 for the T-X competition, is not in discussions with the NDMA Office about that product.
Once Lockheed Martin and the Air Force sign off on a CRADA, the service will set up an "assessment basis," which involves tailoring the assessment criteria and methodology for a particular design. Then, in the second phase, the Air Force will conduct a technical evaluation of data provided by the company.
"We don’t do flight testing. We simply rely upon the data provided by the collaborator," FitzHarris said. "There’s testing, analysis, all of these things that typically feed into an assessment that they’re going to be providing, and we have the technical expertise to take that and bounce that off the assessment basis and give an assessment of compliance. Where there is compliance lacking or data lacking, we’re going to assess a risk and then we provide that information in an assessment package back to the collaborator."
The NDMA office, which was stood up in April, comprises eight full-time staff that interface between industry and the airworthiness experts that conduct the evaluations — in this case, Air Force Technical Airworthiness Authority Jorge Gonzalez and his staff.
The service’s technical airworthiness authority can conduct an assessment of any military aircraft, including rotorcraft and unmanned aerial systems, with the caveat that commercial aircraft and small drones would be regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration instead, said Gonzalez. It will not evaluate aircraft systems, only the platform as a whole.
Textron Airland and Lockheed Martin are the only companies who have granted the Defense Department permission to acknowledge that they are seeking out CRADAs for their aircraft, but two other companies recently approached the NDMA Office to talk about products, said Gonzales and FitzHarris. Neither of those vendors have answered the questionnaire, which officially starts the process.
So far, no companies have sought an assessment of unmanned aircraft or rotorcraft, although Predator-manufacturer General Atomics was one of the 10 contractors who attended an industry day last fall where Air Force officials first pitched the NDMA office, Gonzalez said.
Dak Hardwick, the Aerospace Industries Association’s (AIA) assistant vice president for international affairs, called the Air Force’s initial CRADA with Textron "a tremendous step forward." Over the years, AIA had heard a "significant number" of complaints from industry executives who said that foreign nations wanted to buy US-manufactured military aircraft that were not in use by the US government, which convoluted the sales process.
For instance, during operations in Afghanistan, the DoD had to stand up separate program offices to manage sales of assets that were not in the US inventory.
"Even though it was being purchased through the FMS system, because it was not a US aircraft, it had to be managed separately, and it required a different infrastructure in order to support that," he said in an Aug. 9 interview, using an acronym for Foreign Military Sales.
If the Air Force determines that an aircraft meets airworthiness specifications, that process becomes more simplified, he said. Another benefit is that the office will provide a window into the independent development work that industry is doing, allowing the service to get insight on new technologies without having to spend its own money.
"When they start to see some of the really innovative things that industry is doing, as they dig into the airworthiness assessment, they’re going to be very impressed with what Textron has brought with the Scorpion, and perhaps they want to look at additional systems that might be available," Hardwick said.
Gonzalez agreed that the service would benefit from learning about the new technologies, methodologies and production processes, but stressed that all technical information and findings from an assessment would be kept separate from research-and-development and procurement portfolios.
"If we do buy a system that we’ve assessed, then that’s obviously something we can leverage after the competition is done fair and square, without any perception that this CRADA has provided some advantage to the company," he said.