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FEATURE ihs.com
FEATURE
ihs.com

Date

Posted:

01-Oct-1998

International

Defense

Review

CLOUDING

THE

ISSUE

OF

STEALTH

AIRCRAFT

SUPPORTABILITY

Ignorance,

bias

and

lack

of

hard

information

have

bred

confusion

about

many

aspects

of

low

observables

(LO)

or

stealth

technology,

and

the

nature

and

amount

of

special

maintenance

that

LO

aircraft

need

is

no

exception.

Media

accounts

of

the

US

General

Accounting

Office

(GAO)

reports

on

the

B2

have

created

the

impression

that

the

bomber

is

a

temperamental

beast,

skulking

in

its

hangar,

and

unable

to

perform

operational

missions

unless

its

vast

acreage

of

composite

skin

is

free

from

any

flaw.

Despite

this

exaggeration,

the

US

Air

Force

(USAF)

Air

Combat

Command

(ACC)told

the

GAO

last

year

that

LO

maintenance

was

its

"numberone

supportability

issue."

The

maintenance

of

stealthy

aircraft

poses

some

important

challenges.

However,

IDR's

investigation

of

the

state

of

the

art

suggests

that

the

problem

has

been

acknowledged,

and

is

being

addressed

by

modifications

to

inservice

aircraft

and

new

approaches

to

the

design

of

the

F22

and

Joint

Strike

Fighter

(JSF).

A

stealthy

aircraft

relies

for

its

survival

on

its

low

radarcrosssection

(RCS),

but

RCS

differs

from

other

vital

qualities

(such

as

speed

or

range)

in

that

it

may

be

severely

compromised

by

defects

that

are

very

small

or

even

invisible.

In

early

tests

of

the

Lockheed

Have

Blue

prototype,

researchers

found

that

the

aircraft

would

show

up

on

radar

if

landing

gear

doors

were

gapping,

or

if

fasteners

holding

down

access

panels

were

not

fully

tightened.

Even

if

the

surface

is

visibly

perfect,

electromagnetic

discontinuities

on

the

skin

could

disturb

surface

currents

and

generate

unpredictable

RCS

glints.

The

challenge

is

compounded

because

there

has

not

existed,

until

recently,

a

way

to

measure

the

RCS

of

an

aircraft

in

service.

In

the

early

days

of

stealth,

the

only

RCS

measurement

tool

available

was

an

 

outdoor

RCS

range,

which

was

limited

to

model

testing.

Groundtoair

and

airtoair

measurement

tools

were

developed

in

the

1980s,

but

the

task

of

covering

all

the

significant

aspect

angles

and

frequencies

was

too

complex

to

be

implemented

at

an

operational

level.

Close

to

perfection

The

original

solution

to

this

problem

was

to

develop

basic

designs

and

radarabsorbent

material

(RAM)

which

will

perform

properly

as

long

as

there

is

no

degradation

which

can

be

detected

by

an

external

inspection

of

the

aircraft.

During

development,

the

designers

defined

the

minimum

tolerable

deficiencies

in

the

LO

surfaces

and

materials,

and

maintainers

developed

procedures

to

find

and

repair

any

damage

that

is

found.

The

standard

is

close

to

perfection,

and

the

inspection

 

and

repair

procedures

were

timeconsuming.

The

Lockheed

Martin

F117

pioneered

this

approach.

To

reduce

RCS

and

to

help

ensure

that

the

external

surface

would

remain

free

from

electromagnetic

disconnects,

the

F117

was

entirely

covered

with

RAM.

In

early

aircraft,

this

took

the

form

of

a

flexible

material

(resembling

linoleum

floor

covering

in

texture

and

thickness),

which

trademarks Copyright IHS and its affiliated and subsidiary companies, all rights reserved. All Article Page 1

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ihs.com comprised carbonyl iron particles in a dielectric polymer binder. The RAM (900kg of it) was

ihs.com

comprised

carbonyl

iron

particles

in

a

dielectric

polymer

binder.

The

RAM

(900kg

of

it)

was

cut

to

shape

and

glued

to

the

F117's

skin.

It

was

recognized

early

in

the

Have

Blue

program

that

doors

 

and

access

panels

were

a

problem.

Weapon

bays

and

landing

gear

doors,

which

had

to

be

opened

in

flight,

required

complex

seals,

positive

locks

and

serrated

edges,

and

any

access

panel

was

a

potential

RCS

hot

spot.

The

only

solution,

at

the

time,

was

to

minimize

the

number

of

quickaccess

panels,

using

them

only

for

systems

which

had

to

be

checked

routinely

before

every

flight.

 

Otherwise,

the

skin

is

sealed

with

RAM.

To

reach

most

of

the

avionics,

for

example,

the

RAM

covering

the

facet

where

the

panel

is

located

has

to

be

scraped

off

and

replaced,

a

process

which

takes

up

to

two

hours.

The

59

production

F117s

were

delivered

in

several

different

 

configurations,

with

slightly

different

types

of

RAM.

The

largest

change

was

a

switch

from

a

sheet

material

(described

above)

to

a

sprayedon

RAM,

which

offered

similar

performance

was but

less

 

expensive

to

apply.

However,

all

repairs

are

made

with

sheet

material,

so

each

F117

has

a

different

patchwork

of

original,

sprayed,

and

repair

material

on

its

surface.

The

other

major

 

stealthrelated

maintenance

item

on

the

F117

is

the

exhaust

system,

which

has

been

problematic

since

the

start

of

the

program

and

has

been

under

almost

continuous

development.

The

exhaust

 

is

a

metallic

structure,

covered

with

nonloadbearing

ceramic

'bricks'

made

of

a

material

similar

to

the

quartz

tiles

used

on

the

exterior

of

the

Space

Shuttle.

In

the

original

design,

the

bricks

were

cemented

in

place

individually,

and

the

seams

between

them

had

to

be

filled

with

a

heatresistant

puttylike

material.

If

the

gaps

were

not

properly

sealed,

hot

air

could

impinge

on

the

metal

 

substructure

and

cause

a

fire.

Scheduled

exhaust

maintenance

could

take

600

man

hours,

spread

 

over

14

days.

Overall,

the

F117

is

still

a

highmaintenance

aircraft.

Early

in

the

program,

a

'good'

month

saw

the

fleet

averaging

more

than

100

maintenance

man

hours

per

flight

hour

(MMH/FH).

On

almost

nine

sorties

out

of

10,

the

aircraft

returned

requiring

significant

maintenance

to

its

LO

systems.

With

intensive

work

and

some

aircraft

modifications,

this

figure

improved

to

45

MMH/FH

by

1989,

but

has

been

relatively

stable

since

then.

LO

features

directly

accounted

for

10%

of

this

total,

but

that

number

does

not

wholly

account

for

the

impact

of

LO

on

the

overall

design.

Many

 

of

these

problems

are

being

addressed

under

the

Single

Configuration

Fleet

(SCF)

program,

which

is

being

implemented

at

the

same

time

as

the

F117

MidLife

Update

effort,

known

as

Block

Cycle

1.

Engineering

and

manufacturing

development

(EMD)

of

the

Block

Cycle

1

improvements

started

in

December

1996.

Lockheed

Martin

is

the

prime

contractor,

Hamilton

Standard

is

providing

the

 

1760A

databus

allowing

the

aircraft

to

carry

the

Boeing

GBU30

Joint

Direct

Attack

Munition

 

and,

at

the

same

time,

Raytheon

is

updating

the

video

tracker

in

the

infrared

acquisition

and

designation

system

(IRADS).

Tests

will

be

completed

at

the

end

of

2000,

and

both

the

Block

Cycle

1

and

SCF

modifications

will

be

implemented

over

the

following

four

years

as

F117s

undergo

 

routine

depot

maintenance.

Under

the

SCF,

the

RAM

will

be

removed

from

all

aircraft.

Next,

a

number

of

new

quickaccess

panels

will

be

added,

providing

easier

access

to

avionics

and

other

 

frequently

serviced

components.

The

RAM

will

be

replaced

by

a

new

sprayedon

coating.

This

will

be

more

weatherresistant

than

the

sheet

RAM,

which

tends

to

bubble

under

intense

sunlight.

The

edges

of

the

access

panels

will

be

covered

by

'zip

strips':

specially

developed

strips

of

RAM

which

 

can

be

quickly

pulled

off

the

aircraft

while

leaving

the

rest

of

the

surface

untouched.

When

the

 
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ihs.com panel is replaced, new zip strips can be installed to fill the gap. The USAF

ihs.com

 

panel

is

replaced,

new

zip

strips

can

be

installed

to

fill

the

gap.

The

USAF

is

also

looking

for

a

handheld

or

robotic

spraying

tool

for

making

small

RAM

repairs

on

the

flightline.

Cutting

stealth

 
 

work

in

half

The

original

exhaust

systems

have

now

been

replaced

by

an

improved

design,

using

a

more

durable

material

and

interlocking

tiles,

which

require

much

less

sealing.

Overall,

according

to

Lockheed

Martin

tactical

programs

chief

 

Paul

Martin,

the

goal

is

to

reduce

stealthrelated

 

maintenance

costs

by

50%.

Another

element

in

improving

F117

maintainability

is

the

Diagnostic

 

Imaging

Radar

System

(DIRS),

developed

by

System

Planning

Corporation

(SPC).

SPC's

Radar

&

Measurement

Sciences

Group

has

been

 

the

principal

of supplier

RCS

measurement

radars

since

the

early

days

of

stealth,

and

has

supplied

the

radar

and

dataprocessing

systems

for

the

USAF's

giant

RAMS

range

at

Holloman

AFB

and

many

company

ranges.

The

DIRS

comprises

an

imaging

radar

mounted

on

circular

tracks

that

encircle

the

aircraft,

so

that

it

can

image

it

from

the

most

critical

angles,

measure

its

RCS

and

detect,

locate

and

measure

flaws.

The

system

is

designed

to

be

portable.

The

first

of

two

DIRS

was

delivered

late

last

year.

The

USAF

has

evaluated

various

 

handheld

diagnostic

devices,

but

has

not

yet

found

one

that

meets

all

its

needs.

DIRS

is

considered

to

be

a

precursor

of

a

program

called

Common

LO

Verification

Systems

(CLOVRS),

 

which

includes

point

tools

and

'nearfield'

inspection

tools

(such

as

DIRS).

A

request

for

proposals

(RFP)

should

be

issued

imminently,

and

 

CLOVRS

systems

could

be

delivered

in

200001.

It

seems

that

the

USAF

is

reliving

some

aspects

of

the

F117

experience

on

the

Northrop

Grumman

B2.

 

Like

its

predecessor,

the

B2

is

requiring

a

significant

measure

of

maintenance

in

its

early

years,

and

is

undergoing

a

series

of

modifications

which

are

intended

to

reduce

the

maintenance

burden.

F117

experience

 

was

not

very

helpful

to

the

B2

program,

for

two

reasons:

the

B2

was

being

 

designed

while

the

F117

was

still

just

entering

service,

and

the

B2

uses

a

rather

different

 

approach

to

stealth

design.

Instead

of

covering

the

entire

aircraft

with

thick

RAM,

the

designers

 

created

a

shape

 

with

a

single

continuous

edge

line

and

two

surfaces,

upper

and

lower,

which

were

free

of

steep

slopes

or

sharp

curves.

Because

these

surfaces

had

an

inherently

low

RCS,

they

would

need

only

a

paintlike

RAM

coating

to

absorb

surface

currents.

The

disadvantage

of

this

 

philosophy

is

that,

as

surface

slopes

become

shallower

and

the

'grazing

angle'

diminishes

between

the

radar

wave

and

the

surface,

the

impact

of

small

discontinuities

and

gaps

on

RCS

becomes

 

greater.

In

a

large

aircraft,

too,

significant

flexing

and

bending

is

unavoidable,

and

causes

each

 

skin

panel

to

move

relative

to

its

neighbors

in

ways

which

are

virtually

impossible

to

predict.

While

the

B2

represented

a

technological

advance

over

the

F117

in

terms

of

combining

LO

with

aerodynamic

efficiency,

it

was

similar

in

that

LO

was

given

higher

priority

than

maintainability.

The

B2

was

also

designed

for

nuclear

strike,

so

the

force

would

be

divided

at

any

time

between

alert

aircraft

in

full

LO

 

trim,

but

not

flying

and

aircraft

on

training

missions.

It

did

not

matter

too

 

if much

the

LO

treatment

would

need

extensive

work

after

one

or

two

sorties,

because

the

alert

 

aircraft

would

not

 

fly

more

than

two.

Most

of

the

B2

surface

has

not

been

a

problem,

according

to

Col

William

Armstrong,

chief

of

the

fighter/bomber

maintenance

division

at

ACC

headquarters.

However,

some

of

the

original

materials

used

to

seal

joints

and

gaps

were

selected

for

their

LO

performance

with

little

attention

to

other

qualities.

Some

of

them,

particularly

the

caulk

and

tape

materials

used

to

fill

joint

lines

and

seal

access

panels,

"were

toxic

or

hazardous,"

says

Armstrong.

 
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ihs.com "They had short lives and long cure times, measured in days or weeks." Sealants were

ihs.com

 

"They

had

short

lives

and

long

cure

times,

measured

in

days

or

weeks."

Sealants

were

subject

to

cracking,

peeling

and

loss

of

adhesion

caused

by

air

loads,

rain

and

structural

distortion.

Some

materials

were

applied

in

as

many

as

five

layers

"and

if

the

fourth

layer

did

not

cure

properly,

you

had

to

remove

everything

and

start

from

scratch."

In

other

cases,

long

seams

had

to

be

filled

in

sections,

with

substantial

cure

times

between

each

section.

One

caulking

material

would

take

35

days

to

cure

at

normal

temperatures.

It

would

cure

in

72h

if

heated,

but

only

3ft

of

caulk

could

be

cured

at

a

time.

Many

of

the

materials

would

not

cure

properly

outside

a

controlled

environment,

avoiding

extremes

of

temperature

or

humidity.

The

1997

GAO

report

focused

on

these

problems,

and

on

the

fact

that

they

prevented

the

USAF

from

deploying

the

B2

outside

the

US

because

the

aircraft

needed

frequent

repairs

in

airconditioned

shelters.

The

report

did

not

highlight

the

fact

 

that

its

data

predominantly

addressed

the

original

Block

10

configuration.

Even

the

June

1998

 

GAO

report

on

the

B2

is

based

on

a

November

1997

operational

testing

report,

which

in

turn

draws

almost

exclusively

on

experience

with

the

interim

Block

20.

The

definitive

Block

30

variant,

which

is

due

to

be

declared

operational

next

year,

is

a

major

upgrade,

featuring

a

significant

 

evolutionary

change

in

materials.

The

Block

30

modification

includes

the

removal

and

replacement

of

all

the

aircraft's

edges,

including

the

leading

edges

and

control

surfaces,

in

order

to

meet

RCS

requirements.

The

leading

edges,

visibly

segmented

on

the

Block

20,

are

joined

into

an

electrically

continuous

structure.

Aircraft

delivered

prior

to

AV1014

receive

a

new

'aft

deck'

structure,

to

 
 

correct

cracking

and

other

problems

with

the

hightemperature

zone

behind

the

engines.

Depainting

the

B2

All

the

surface

coatings

on

the

B2,

including

absorbent

and

conductive

layers,

are

removed

and

replaced

with

improved

materials

during

the

Block

30

upgrade.

After

having

a

great

deal

of

difficulty

in

finding

an

environmentally

safe

stripping

medium

that

would

remove

the

coatings

without

damaging

the

composite

skins,

Northrop

Grumman

developed

a

technique

to

'depaint'

the

B2

using

crystallized

wheat

starch

and

highpressure

air.

Some

of

the

most

awkward

materials

have

been

almost

completely

eliminated.

The

Block

10/20

used

"several

thousand

feet"

of

the

72h,

heatcured

caulk

mentioned

above

to

seal

panel

lines.

On

the

Block

30,

only

60ft

of

 

the

material

are

left,

most

of

it

replaced

by

a

new

thintape

material.

Cure

times

on

other

materials

have

been

reduced

"from

days

to

hours,"

says

Armstrong.

The

latest

GAO

report

notes

that,

in

themselves,

the

Block

30

changes

will

not

allow

the

B2

to

achieve

the

77%

mission

capable

rate

(MCR)

specified

in

the

Operational

Requirements

Document

(ORD).

This

is

correct,

 

says

Armstrong,

but

the

MCR

is

limited

by

a

number

of

factors,

of

which

maintenance

of

the

LO

system

is

just

one.

The

USAF

is

planning

to

invest

in

improvements

to

bring

the

B2

up

to

its

specified

reliability

in

the

early

2000s.

LO

maintenance

accounts

for

40%

of

the

unscheduled

 

maintenance

on

the

B2,

and

31%

of

its

total

maintenance.

Currently,

with

the

Block

20

in

the

 

process

of

being

superseded

by

the

Block

30

as

the

principal

operational

variants,

the

fleet

is

running

between

70

and

100

MMH/FH.

The

USAF's

goal

for

the

B2

was

50

MMH/FH.

Recently,

Congress

has

authorized

the

release

of

US$54

million

in

Fiscal

Year

1998.

The

money

will

be