The Airplane That Doesn’t Cost Enough

A reliable and relatively cheap fighter is being ignored by the Air Force, because the Air Force didn’t design it.

Steve Helber / AP

Late in the 1970s officials of the Carter administration began to worry that American fighter aircraft might be too glamorous for the country’s own good. Nearly all our foreign military clients were asking for the same frontline fighters—mainly F-15s and F-16s—that were being built for the Pentagon, whether or not their security needs justified such aircraft, whether or not their air forces actually could use the planes in combat (even the U.S. Air Force was having trouble keeping the F-15 flying), and whether or not they could afford to buy from the top shelf. Military and technological status-seeking appeared to have routed common sense in many governments. Iran had demanded and received the extraordinarily complex F-14, which the Shah (and his successors) would never be able to maintain. Saudi Arabia was raising a storm in Congress by insisting on the F-15. Many poor countries—Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Taiwan, Spain, South Korea, Singapore, and Venezuela, among others—were agitating for the only slightly less impressive F-16 and F-18. Most phrased their desire for frontline fighters in terms of a test of American support and intentions—a shrewd tactic, because hardly anyone could argue with a straight face that such planes would be in a developing country’s best political or economic interests. Many foreign buyers were not deterred by the expense of these aircraft, because Uncle Sam was picking up at least part of the tab through concessionary loans or outright grants.

Convinced that the situation was getting out of hand, President Jimmy Carter decided that what was needed was a new fighter plane designed specifically for foreign customers. This plane would be cheaper, simpler, and less powerful than top-shelf U.S. fighters; descriptions like “intermediate,” “medium capable,” and “degraded” were used to describe the projected machine. Carter asked defense contractors to develop such a product at their own expense and risk. Naturally, no client would want a “degraded” fighter plane, but Carter assured contractors that the State Department would create a market for one all the same, by refusing to license the Pentagon’s best for export. The details of the plan were ironed out in 1979, and a program to develop a fighter (referred to as the FX) for foreign markets was set in motion.

The goals of the FX program—low cost and ease of maintenance—were well suited to the interests of U.S. foreign policy. When a developing country goes into debt to acquire weapons, it weakens its economy and diverts resources from its citizens, worsening the “political, social, and economic problems on which revolutionary movements thrive,” as General John Vessey, Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told a congressional committee. (Pakistan, for example, one of the poorest countries in the world, spent nearly a billion dollars of its own money in 1981 to acquire forty F-16s, an act that an impartial referee might consider criminal.) The purchase of American fighters involves more than the aircraft themselves. American military personnel must accompany the planes to instruct the client in their use and to stand guard over classified technology; usually, employees of the contractor go along as well, to try to keep the planes running. At present some 250 U.S. citizens are living in Saudi Arabia to assist the Saudi air force with its sixty F-15s; generally, at least two civilian technicians follow every F-16 sold. Besides being a large hidden expense, such personnel would make excellent hostages.

Perhaps most important from the perspective of U.S. interests, if a weapon we sell cannot be made to work, it cannot serve event he legitimate defense purposes of our clients. If Pakistan is attacked and its American-made fighters cannot respond, not only will the money spent to buy them have been wasted but also the U.S. military will be under added pressure to step in—with all the cost, loss of American lives, and political risk that such intervention entails. In short, an airplane cheaper to buy and easer to run than the frontline fighters could serve U.S. objectives, by allowing our clients to defend themselves on their own.

Today two FX-class aircraft are flying. One, the General Dynamics F-16/79, is a “degraded” F-16—the standard Air Force fighter with some electronics removed and an older, less powerful engine substituted for the one used by American forces. The other FX-class aircraft, the Northrop F-20, is almost entirely new. Rather than use degraded versions of existing equipment, Northrop employed cheaper new equipment, for which the Pentagon had not issued requirements. The F-20 has turned out, as planned, to be much cheaper overall than frontline U.S fighters, and easier to service. But something quite unexpected has also been achieved: the F-20 may be as good as the best fighters—nearly equal to the F-15 or the F-16 in some respects, and superior to them in others. According to some Air Force pilots, in combat with frontline Air Force planes F-20s could win.

No such trial encounter is scheduled, however, The Pentagon is doing its best to ignore the F-20; it won’t consider adding the plane to the active American inventory, and, according to knowledgeable sources, it is dissuading foreign customers from buying the plane. (So far, no F-20s have been sold.)

Northrop was supposed to build a little sister for U.S. fighters, not a rival. That an aircraft on a par with the Air Force’s best could be developed in just a few years at considerably less expense, for sale at a much lower purchase price, reflects badly on the Air Force’s own fighter projects; it also threatens the contractors and service bureaucracies whose profits and budget allocations depend on safeguarding the status quo. And the fact that a high-performance jet fighter that is not a mechanic’s nightmare could be built at all embarrasses the Air Force, which has never succeeded in building such a plane.

How could the F-20 be cheaper than frontline Air Force fighters and also be as good? The answer is largely that the F-20 was developed under free-enterprise standards of the sort that the Pentagon regularly espouses but rarely practices. In addition, the plane’s designers confined themselves to seeking reasonable solutions to the realities of combat, rather than pushing to meet the outer limits of theoretical scenarios. The resulting airplane offers not only an opportunity to reduce the defense budget today but also a model for keeping it down—while improving the country’s military readiness—in the future.

Although General Dynamics signed on to the FX program, it apparently did so without enthusiasm. After all, the company was selling fully loaded F-16s as fast as it could make them, to the U.S. Air Force, to Israel, and to several of our NATO allies. Most potential buyers of the FX really wanted the F-16, especially if they didn’t’ have to pay for it in full. So General Dynamics knew that if it succeeded in building a cheap and attractive alternative to the F-16, it might be stealing business from itself. Some say that the company participated in the FX program only as a hedge against the chance that Carter would be re-elected and would make good his threat to forbid foreign sales of frontline planes.

Northrop, on the other hand, entered the FX program eagerly. The company needed the work. Although Northrop was prosperous—it builds part of the Navy’s new F-18 fighter, guidance mechanisms for the MX, and the fuselage of the 747 transport, and (perhaps most important) it has won the early contracts for the Stealth bomber—its export business was dying. For two decades Northrop had been building and selling overseas the F-5, a low-cost fighter much admired for its reliability and compactness but by the late 1970s outclassed by Russian and French export fighters. Northrop had also suffered two painful defeats in bids for Air-Force business. The company’s prototype for an anti-tank plane lost in a “fly-off” against the A-10 prototype by Fairchild Industries; its prototype for the next major American fighter was bested by General Dynamic’s F-16.

Northrop’s first inclination was simply to give its old F-5 fighter a hot new engine and call it an FX. But then officials began to reflect on what they had learned in the course of building the company’s two rejected prototypes, and also on the aerospace technology that had been developed since the Air Force’s frontline planes had been conceived. The F-15, a huge “air-superiority” fighter beloved by Air Force generals for its power and stunning appearance, was designed in the late 1960s: the F-16 was designed in the early 1970s. The engineering of both planes preceded the explosion of progress in silicon chips and miniature computers. Also, both planes are burdened with the Pratt & Whitney F100 jet engine, which is extremely powerful but rife with mechanical problems and prone to spontaneous stall-outs. Stall-outs can be deadly in planes equipped with only one engine, like the F-16. Recently the F100 engine’s high maintenance costs have been the subject of a number of news reports; it was discovered, for instance, that Pratt & Whitney was billing the Air Force $17.59 for a bolt that it had contracted to supply for sixty-seven cents. Last year the Air Force’s budget for the F100’s spare parts alone was $628 million, and problems with the engine have become so severe that the service held an unprecedented “rebidding” of the supply contract, and has taken most of the business away from Pratt & Whitney.

Northrop decided to build a new airplane that would be modeled only loosely on the F-5. Central to the new design would be General Electric’s F404 engine, just developed for the Navy’s F-18. At the Navy’s insistence engineers of the F404 had observed a novel precept in fighter-engine design: slightly less than the maximum thrust possible in exchange for greater reliability, as building in the first 90 to 95 percent. “It’s the last few pounds of thrust, the last turn of the crank, that fouls up everything else,” one retired Air Force colonel says. The F404 produces six percent less thrust per pound of internal weight than the F100 engine does, but it has 19,000 fewer parts. And the F404 is modular, so that if something goes wrong, only the failed section, rather than the entire engine, needs to be removed. (Anyone who has tried to change the seventh and eighth spark plugs on a 1975 Chevrolet Monza, a job that entails loosening the block mounts and moving the engine forward, will appreciate the difference.) The Navy plane for which the F404 had been designed is heavy and uses two engines; Northrop realized that a single F404 in a smaller fighter would yield high performance at a bargain price.

The F-20’s navigational device is used on Boeing’s new 757 and 767 passenger airliners. Most of the frontline fighters employ gyroscopes for guidance information; the nonmechanical system on the F-20 compares the frequencies of laser beams. Because it has no internal moving parts, its “mean time between failures” (as engineers say) is 2,000 hours; the gyroscope system on the F-16 has a mean time between failures of only 750 hours. The F-20’s navigational system is also substantially less temperamental than those of other fighters. Gyroscope systems require from ninety seconds to ten minutes to warm up and align themselves. The laser system can align itself in as little as twenty-two seconds—an important consideration for fighter craft that must be ready to scramble.

For the F-20’s radar Northrop picked a newly developed digital unit that is governed by boards of semiconductor chips. It performs as well as the radar on the F-16 does, and has roughly half as many parts, making it much less likely to break down—a welcome development considering that radar is one of the least reliable components of high-performance fighters. The F-15 radar’s mean time between failures is forty hours; the F-16’s is seventy-five hours. Silicon chips give the F-20’s radar a mean time between failures of 200 hours.

The small size of digital computers allowed Northrop’s designers to add useful features to the radar without greatly increasing its size or weight. For example, the F-20 radar has a “freeze mode” that prevents the device from serving as a beacon for enemy planes. When the F-20 radar is switched to “freeze,” it shuts off, but the plane’s computer retains the last enemy position recorded and plots the F-20’s movements relative to that position and relative to potential targets on the ground.

Vital flight information in the F-20 is projected onto a screen within the pilot’s view so that he can watch his controls without lowering his eyes from the window. Flight commands are entered on a small keyboard just below the screen. In contrast, in some military fighters the pilot must turn to the side or even look at the floor to locate the right turn to the side or even look at the floor to locate the right switch. The plane’s software minimizes the routine tasks of flying. For example, whenever the engine is started, the radio and all the other systems except the radar and the navigational device are automatically engaged; there’s none of the throwing of toggle switches that is a familiar scene in the movies but a waste of time in war.

The F-20’s digital circuitry is an example of technology that works, as opposed to technology for its own sake—a useful distinction in military procurement. In weaponry design, and in engineering in general, devices that are complicated, have many parts, or are required to perform at the limit of their capacity tend to fail. And yet some extremely sophisticated devices can be made dependable, as long as their design parameters are realistic and the technology employed is well understood, rather than experimental. For years the breakdown of the television set, with its hot vacuum tubes and motor-driven antenna, was a regular household occurrence. Today’s television sets rarely break even though they are more advanced than older models. By the same token, a Macintosh computer is far more advanced than the original Univac, but more reliable as well. Its components are fewer, simpler, and tailored to everyday use. Practical advances in television sets, computers, and fighter planes are brought about by emphasizing what actually works instead of what would be nice if it did work. A technologically sophisticated machine does not have to be complicated.

An indication of the F-20’s simplicity is the fact that of the more than sixty pilots (from foreign air forces as well as from the U.S. Air Force) who have flown Northrop’s prototypes, none has required more than two days of instruction on the flight simulator. One F-15 pilot from the Saudi air force asked if he could try to “fly” the simulator without being told anything at all about the F-20; he was able to do so without crashing. “The controls are so easy to learn and use, it’s amazing,” says Major Doug Pearson, an Air Force test pilot who has flown the F-15 and the F-16 and its currently assigned to test the F-20. Designers at Northrop explain that they engineered the controls to make them easy for pilots from less developed countries to master. But ease of control is as valuable to the most experienced pilot as it is to the least. “Why should a pilot be inundated with a lot of technical details when he’s trying to fly and fight?” Pearson asks. “In a vintage [Second World War] plane you could concentrate on the stick, the throttle, and the trigger. This has some of that same quality.”

The designers of the F-20 were able to exploit at least two other technological innovations unavailable to the designers of the F-15 or the F-16. One is a lightweight composite of graphite that takes the place of metal in some parts of a plane. The other is an improved version of the Sidewinder missile.

This Sidewinder has received little attention in the press, because on paper it is merely a refinement of a thirty-year-old weapon. Being neither “new” nor a “breakthrough,” the upgraded Sidewinder has little glamour, but its effect on aerial battles could be profound. Since the original heat-seeking Sidewinder was invented, in the mid-1950s, it and similar, foreign-built models have been by far the most effective air-to-air missiles. Most of the missile “kills” recorded by the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam and by the Israelis in the 1967 and 1973 wars and in Lebanon were by Sidewinders. In 1982, when Navy F-14s, which were designed, at fantastic expense, to be “platforms” for radar-guided missiles, shot down two Libyan fighters, it was not the radar missiles but ordinary Sidewinders that were used.

The original Sidewinder works pretty much like a cannon. A pilot must close with his target aircraft and then maneuver in behind it so that the missile’s infrared sensor can lock on to the heat of the target’s engine. This requirement results in a dogfight, in which the two pilots turn ever-tightening circles as they try to obtain firing positions off each other’s tails.

The new, “all-aspect” Sidewinder, however, can sense engine heat even when it is fired in front of a target. It can also sense heat across longer distances than the original Sidewinder can, and so it need not be aimed so precisely. This improvement enables pilots, in many situations, to avoid dogfights. According to informed defense-industry sources, during the war in the Falklands British planes achieved two kills for every three all-aspect Sidewinders fired. During the Israeli-Syrian fighting in the Bekaa Valley that same year, when some fifty-five Russian-built MiGs were destroyed and only one Israeli plane as lost, two of the Israeli kills were achieved by air-to-air cannons, two by radar-guided missiles, and all the rest by Sidewinders, many of them the new version.

Why has this effective weapon, which it would seem the Pentagon ought to be crowing about, received little attention? For one thing, both the Air Force and the Navy have made widely publicized commitments to the radar-guided missile, staking the careers of hundreds of top officers and the budgets of several large bureaucracies on it. For another, Sidewinders cost a fraction of what radar-guided missiles do, so contractors are more eager to build the latter.

During the 1960s both Air Force and Navy planners assumed that radar-guided missiles—the latest thing in military technology—would be improved to such an extent that they would be virtually unstoppable, whereas heat-seeking missiles, by then already an old idea, were as good as they were ever going to be. As a result, the F-15 was outfitted with a huge radar dish, was designed to fly very high and fast, and was made big enough to carry several radar-guided Sparrow missiles. A capacity to win in close combat was not a high priority in the development of the F-15, because the plane would always shoot from a distance—or so went the theory. Similarly, the Nay designed its most expensive fighter, the F-14, to accommodate the Sparrow and an even larger radar-guided missile: the Phoenix. As the expense of building these planes soared (today each costs about $35 million), the limitations of radar-guided missiles became apparent. The Sparrow’s “probability of kill” is supposed to be near 100 percent, but It has turned out to be much lower in practice. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, for example, of the twelve Sparrows fired, only one hit its target.

Although the all-aspect Sidewinder would appear to give the Air Force and the Navy exactly what they have so arduously pursued with radar missiles (a weapon with a high probability of striking its targets), prestige and the career interests of officers in radar missiles take precedence over the poor combat performance of those missiles. The F-16, which is smaller and more nimble than the F-15, was intended to fire Sidewinders, but it is being modified by the Air Force so that it can also carry a new radar missile, called the AMRAAM. Early indications are that the AMRAAM will be a little more successful than the Sparrow, but not much more. (The missile has yet to be flight-tested.) The Air Force is considering adding AMRAAM missiles the $208 million B-1 bomber, which at present has no weapons with which to defend itself, and there has even been talk of building a fighter version of the B-1 that would carry racks of AMRAAMs. The Navy, for its part, has chosen the Sparrow for its new F-18, and is even buying Sparrows for mounting on ships.

In the Reagan Administration’s 1985 defense budget Sparrows are listed at $206,000 each. AMRAAMs are expected to cost about $900,000 each. The all-aspect Sidewinder costs $69,000.

Because an all-aspect Sidewinder weighs much less than a radar-guided missile, the plane that carries it can be small—and in air-to-air combat the smaller plane has the advantage. During a series of combat exercises staged in the late 1970s by the Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, small size enabled the underpowered and poorly equipped F-5 to sneak up on the far more capable F-15 and, frequently, score a kill. In many instances this happened simply because the F-5’s pilot saw the target F-15 long before the pilot of the F-15 saw the F-5. (In these exercises pilots were required to see their targets and verify them as foe before firing—a rule that almost always prevails in actual combat.) Confronted with this evidence of the large, expensive F-15’s vulnerability to small, cheap planes the Air Force hierarchy took immediate action: it stopped holding such tests.

The F-15 is two and a half times larger than the F-20; the F-16 is a third larger. Unlike the F-5, the F-20 is nearly the equal of these frontline planes in power and equipment. How it would perform against them in combat exercises can only be guessed, because the Air Force seems determined to avoid such an experiment.

A small plane is harder to see not only with the eyes but also with radar. Radar is not omniscient: like the eye, it loses its effectiveness over distance. The F-15’s radar, for example, can pick up an object the size of a passenger airliner from about seventy-five miles away, but cannot see another F-15 until it is about forty miles away, and cannot see an airplane the size of an F-20 until it draws within about thirty miles. Radar can be frustrated by curvilinear shapes, which make poor reflectors of a radar’s beam, and by polymer materials, which absorb the beam altogether. Perfecting these radar-foiling techniques is the object of the Air Force’s “stealth” project. Small size, the simplest and most basic stealth feature, is drawing little attention from the Pentagon’s researchers, however, because small planes excite neither Air Force generals nor congressmen seeking to make dramatic election-year announcements. Preliminary designs of the much-heralded Stealth bomber project a weight of 550,000 pounds—greater than that of the B-52, the largest bomber flying. If the Stealth bomber turns out to be this large, effective anti-radar technology will be needed just to make the plane no more vulnerable to radar than existing aircraft are, to say nothing of making it “invisible.”

The F-16 and the F-20 have the same top speed, but a plane’s top speed is almost irrelevant to the demands of combat. When the afterburner, which is needed for a plane to achieve maximum acceleration, is turned on, fuel consumption increases drastically and the ability to maneuver or to aim weapons becomes almost nil. In fact, great speed in fighters, once a design goal, has become a by-product of design More important is a plane’s ability to accelerate through the usable speed range of 600 to 900 miles per hour. Although an aircraft’s “Mach number” is still gushed over in some congressional appropriations hearings and newspaper stories, since the late 1960s the top speeds of U.S. aircraft have been falling steadily. The U.S. fighters designed in the 1970s—the F-16, the F-18, and the F-20—cannot fly as fast as standard fighters of the late 1950s could.

The F-16 and the F-20 have the same maneuvering limit: nine times the force of gravity, or nine g. The F-20 can turn slightly faster than the F-16 can; the F-16 can sustain a tightening turn for slightly longer periods than the F-20 can. Both planes can be used either as fighters or as tactical bombers.

The F-16 has a better cannon than the F-20 and can carry several more bombs. It is equipped with special communications “data links” and a built-in electronic jamming system, which the F-20 lacks. It also has the wiring necessary for a pilot to “consent” to drop a nuclear bomb.

The F-16 is also superior to the F-20 in range, although the difference—15 percent more range for high-altitude missions and 10 percent more at low altitude—is not great. The primary mission of U.S. fighters is the defense of Western Europe, where pilots would have to fly relatively short distances to join the fight.

Projections based on more than 600 flights show the F-20 to be superior to the frontline planes in the number of hours and crew members needed for maintenance. According to Air Force figures, the plane’s mean number of flight hours between failures is 4.2, in contrast to 3.2 hours for the F-16 and 1.6 hours for the F-15. The mean number of man-hours of routine maintenance required for an hour of F-20 flight is fifteen; the F-16 requires thirty to thirty-five hours of maintenance per flight hour, and the F-15 nearly fifty hours. The F-20’s greater reliability not only means that the budget for spare parts would be smaller and the odds that the plane would be ready to fly greater; it also means that fewer technicians and well-stocked hangars would be needed—expenses that are not included in a plane’s base price. Northrop estimates that a unit of twenty-four F-20s could be kept flying by 164 people; a unit of F-16s require 323 people, and a unit of F-15s, 476. The F-20’s favorable maintenance requirements and lower fuel consumption (a result of the plane’s small size) yield a dramatically lower cost per flight hour. The F-20, Northrop says, costs $1,304 an hour to fly, whereas the F-16 costs $3,061.

The F-20 itself sells for $11.4 million; the F-16, according to President Reagan’s current budget request, costs $19 million.

Pilots and engineers sometimes marvel that the L-1011 jumbo jet, widely regarded as one of the best-designed aircraft ever, and the C-5 Galaxy transport, surely one of the worst, could have come from the same company—Lockheed. But in many respects they are similar planes. Both are large transports; they fly about the same distance at the same speeds they use the same type of runway; neither is armed; they were designed in the same period. Yet the L-1011 has proved far more reliable than the C-5, costs less than half as much, and its wings haven’t cracked. (The new wings built to correct that flaw in the C-5 cost a total of $1.5 billion for just seventy-seven planes.) Lockheed designed the L-1011 to succeed in the marketplace; it developed the C-5 on a sole-source basis to military specifications.

To get the Pentagon’s projects under way, committees pound out page after page of requirements and restrictions to which contractors are expected to respond in minute detail. In 1981, for instance, the Army sent potential contractors its specifications for a new observation helicopter. In reply it received 2.8 tons of documents—more than the helicopter itself was supposed to weigh. One proposal was 650,000 pages long. The paperwork is not limited to a contract’s proposal stage, of course. Military projects are usually overseen by colonels, generals, and admirals to whom corporate designers cannot speak directly for clarification. Instead, memos are passed to and fro. The most dreaded of these is the “change order,” in which the Pentagon, having asked for one thing, asks for something different—the staff of the office that issued the first specifications having had little or nothing to do in the meantime but think up ways to alter them.

Northrop’s independence seems to account for most of the F-20’s advantages over Air Force planes. General Thomas A. Baker recently told Congress, in one of the Air Force’s few public statements on the F-20, that Northrop’s construction strategy “differed considerably from the way any other [military] airplane has been developed.” When Northrop’s chairman, Thomas V. Jones, started the F-20 project, he sent designers a one-page memo listing approximate cost and performance goals, which they were advised to meet as they saw fit. The company built a $24 million F-20 “production-development center”—a building where designers, engineers, and manufacturing supervisors worked side by side. Prototypes were constructed on the floor of a small factory inside the center, in the presence of the plane’s designers. According to C. Robert Gates, Northrop’s F-20 program manager, “That cut the loop down to zero. If something in the design was wrong or didn’t translate into efficient manufacture, you could tell the proper person right away, because he was standing there.” Under military-contract regulations it can take weeks or months of memo-launching to get word of a design defect to the proper desk—though sometimes word doesn’t travel at all, as the C-5’s wings attest.

Working outside the Pentagon’s control, Northrop was able to choose components according to its own priorities, and in the competitions it held for subcontractors it was able to rate performance, cost, and reliability as equal rather than in descending order. Westinghouse, which builds the F-16’s radar (also used on the B-1 bomber), offered to make a version of that system for the F-20, but the most it would promise was 100 hours between failures; for the system Northrop eventually chose, the figure was 200 hours. Once subcontractors were selected, Northrop stayed in close contact with them, to make sure they would deliver on their promises. An official at Northrop, Frederick Corey, says, “Some of the subcontractors were surprised. They just weren’t used to working closely with the customer.”

As the aircraft was being designed, the factory that would build it was designed too. According to Les Daly, a vice-president of Northrop and the company’s spokesman, “Building the factory correctly is as important to the customer as building the product correctly.” Northrop was aided here by the fact that it was the owner of the factory. Many weapons are built in government-owned contractor-operated (GOCO) factories, whose engineers have less incentive to come up with innovative production techniques. The F-16 and the F-14 are among the fighters built in GOCO plants. The M1 tank, the Maverick missile and other weapons are also built in GOCO plants; most of the B-1 bomber will be. The Sparrow, Patriot, and Hawk missiles, among others, are the inventions of GOCO laboratories.

Knowing that nay money saved in building the factory would mean lower costs and higher profits, Northrop looked for existing manufacturing equipment that could be converted to the F-20’s production, rather than custom-designing what it needed, as is commonly done in GOCO facilities. The deep freezer in which Northrop stores its graphite-composite stocks before processing them was adapted from one used by the Kitchens of Sara Lee baking company. The graphite is sectioned by Gerber cutters—cloth-cutting machines popular in the garment industry. When Northrop decided to use injected-molded fiber glass for some small parts, it consulted a leader in manufacturing of this kind: Mattel Toys.

If these management ideas sound familiar—engineers and assembly lines under one roof, close coordination with suppliers, emphasis on perfecting the factory itself—it is because they have been much discussed of late. They are prime tenets of Japanese management, especially in the automobile industry. Northrop officials cringe at the comparison, but it is unavoidable. In the 1960s, when the Japanese looked at the American car market, they saw that what was missing was a small, highly reliable car, and they changed their factories altogether to make such a car at a competitive price. Northrop officials say simply that the F-20 turned out to be so cheap and easy to service because it was developed privately. “Maintainability must be designed in at the outset. If you try to add it on later, you’re lost,” Gates, the F-20 program manager, says.

Northrop is offering to sell the F-20 with a contract that guarantees a fixed cost per flight hour for spare parts; the company says that it can do so only because it wholly controlled the F-20’s design and knows for sure how well all the pieces of the plane work. The offer has met with considerable skepticism in the aerospace community, in part because of the genius that defense contractors traditionally have shown in escaping apparently ironclad guarantees. But the reaction also reflects the nervousness of other defense contractors, who fear the precedent that will be set if Northrop ever sells the F-20 and lives up to its bargain. Last fall Congress passed a weapons-procurement “warranty” bill, which the Pentagon has since done its best to circumvent. Some defense analysts think that the terms imposed by the weapons-warranty bill are so broad that no contractor, event eh most public-spirited, can reasonably meet them. If that’s the case, a fixed-price parts contract might be a workable alternative.

Recently the air force systems command made a film to show to defense contractors. The film begins with the Indianapolis race-car driver Rick Mears praising the designers of his car, which can jack itself up in order to make changing tires during pit stops easier. There are racing scenes, and throbbing electronic music plays. Then General Robert T. Marsh the head of the Systems Command, appears on the screen. He asks that future Air Force planes be produced like the race car, with maintenance features built in.

“It makes no sense at all for us to build and deploy highly capable weapons systems if a combat commander can’t rely on them because maintenance requirements are too complicated and too frequent,” General Marsh says in the film. Marsh goes on to explain that the Air Force historically has considered its bases “sanctuaries,” immune to attack, where complicated and time-consuming repair jobs can be conducted without interruptions. By 1943 the English and North African fields from which the Allied Forces bombed targets in Europe were rarely bombed themselves, and were also secure from ground attack. During the Korean and Vietnam wars attacks on Air Forces bases were equally rare; many planes used in Vietnam were operated from sanctuaries on Guam or in the Philippines. Marsh notes that the secure air base no longer exists in Europe. “We must now institutionalize this emphasis [reliability] and ensure that we pay as much attention to how available a new weapons system is as we do to how fast it flies, how much it carries, or how much it costs.”

Then the scene shifts to one of NATO’s air bases, where General Billy M. Minter, the commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, stands before an A-10, the most reliable American combat plane flying today. General Minter declares that if chemical or nuclear weapons were employed in a future war, many planes left undamaged by those weapons would still be destroyed in effect, because ground crews dressed in biological protection suits, which are about as cumbersome as deep-sea diving gear, would not be able to repair them. He points out that for a squadron of F-15s even “a slight increase in the [mean time between failures] would allow us a reduction of fifty [maintenance] people and maybe $15 million worth of avionics intermediate-station equipment.” Then General Marsh returns to add that “supportability, reliability, maintainability, flexibility, and serviceability” are “the elements that actually determine just how good our new weapons systems are as war-fighting tools.” Marsh and Minter, both four-star generals near the top of the Air Force’s pyramid, speak as though what they are saying will come as news to their audience.

Although the F-20 is the first privately designed combat aircraft in many years, it is not the first ever. One of the most important planes in the Air Force’s history—the P-51 Mustang, widely acclaimed as the decisive fighter of the Second World War—was built by the North American Aviation Company (now Rockwell International) with no military sponsorship. At first the P-51 met the same reception that the F-20 has: the Air Force, which was then part of the Army, refused to buy it. Those who know that the P-51 appeared in Europe in 1944 might be surprised to learn that the plane was available, but unwanted, in 1941. The Army Air Force favored the P-38 Lightning—a plane much larger, less maneuverable, harder to fly, and easier to shoot down than the P051. It also cost two and a half times as much.

The Army Air Force resisted the P-51 primarily because it was invented by others, a prejudice that afflicts all bureaucracies, but military bureaucracies especially. The Browning automatic rifle, which in the Second World War became the infantryman’s favorite weapon, was developed in the 1930s by a private designer and was adamantly resisted by the Army’s ordnance hierarchy. Around the turn of the century the Navy steadfastly resisted a privately developed sighting system that substantially improved the accuracy of naval guns. Some admirals actually insisted that hard-to-aim guns were good, because they forced a warship to pull alongside its target and do battle in the traditional point-blank style.

The same not-invented-here syndrome appears to be a strong factor in the Air Force’s reaction to the F-20. When General Thomas Baker was asked at a congressional hearing why his service was not interested in the airplane, he replied “Because it was not designed according to U.S. Air Force requirements”—not that the plane couldn’t satisfy those requirements, but simply that it was not designed in response to them.

At the moment, Northrop has few prospects of export orders large enough to justify opening a production line. Since Carter announced his policy of restricting sales of frontline aircraft, a policy nominally endorsed by the Reagan Administration, nearly every country that has requested an exemption from the restriction has been granted one. No fewer than 1,160 U.S. frontline planes have been office and 783 since Reagan was elected. A total of eight FX-class planes—the General Dynamics F-16/79—are on order by Singapore, but even that tiny country has said that what it really wants is frontline equipment.

Technological glamour and political prestige drive the market. Congressman Mervyn Dymally, of California, a native of Trinidad who has spent a considerable amount of time in Venezuela, recently said of Venezuela’s purchase of twenty-four F-16s. “They want what’s best. It doesn’t matter if it works.” Foreign buyers follow the lead of the U.S. Air Force—and if the U.S. Air Force doesn’t care about reliability, why should they? The leaders of democratic states like the NATO countries put themselves at less political risk if they advocate an Air Force plane (if something goes wrong, they can blame Washington) than if they encourage an unorthodox purchase that will be hard to explain to voters and easy for political opponents to criticize. In an authoritarian state like Pakistan the desire for prestige and an image of might—however much might forty airplanes of any type can provide—are the important factors.

The buyer seldom pays the full cost. Mark Thompson, a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has found that more than half of the $8.1 billion cost of foreign sales of the F-16 has in fact been paid by the U.S. Treasury, in the form of either outright grants or subsidized loans that later are quietly forgiven.

Israel is a case in point. As a state at war, and one that often modifies U.S. weapons to make them suit the conditions of war, it of all countries ought to be attracted to the F-20. However, Israel has shown no interest in the airplane and continues to acquire the more expensive F-16. This would seem to be an open-and-shut argument against the F-20. But for Israel cost is not a factor. Israel receives more aid from the United states than any other country does. One hundred and fifty F-16s, worth $3.3 billion, have been shipped there since the plane went into production, and Israel has paid only $22 million for them—about the price of a single plane. If Israel asked for F-20s instead, it would save somebody else’s money. Indeed, Israel would in effect be asking Congress to lower its foreign-aid appropriations, which would be a geopolitical first. In addition, by requesting a privately developed plane, Israel might offend the U.S. Air Force, with which it has a vital interest in maintaining good relations. The Air Force not only supplies Israel with spare parts and reserve materiel but also, should the worst occur, might be Israel’s last hope.

The cycle in which the United States pays for weapons that its clients cannot use continues. General Dynamics has asked for permission to scrap its FX-class plane altogether and have its current series of the F-16—which at present outnumbers any other fighter in the Air Force—classified as an FX fighter for export. (The logic is that since a new F-16-C series is being designed, the current F-16-A is no longer frontline.) Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger recently told Congress that mounting debts from weapons purchases are pushing Third World countries toward bankruptcy. “Many of the countries in financial trouble are strategically important to the United States, and we must devise solutions to enable them to continue to provide for their security,” Weinberger said. The solution he favors is increased tax subsidies to cover the loans. The idea of switching to less expensive weapons was never mentioned.

At another hearing, in March, General Charles Gabriel, the chief of staff of the Air Force, said in reference to the F-20, “We’ve been with the program all along and we’ve been flying it and what [Northrop is] doing out there is the best I’ve ever seen.” The comment is surprising, given the attitude toward the F-20 that other Air Force officers seem to have. I tried to reach Gabriel to ask him to elaborate; an Air Force spokesman said that the General’s statements “stand for themselves” and that neither Gabriel nor the Air Force would have further comments. General Thomas Baker, who was introduced to the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “FX program manager,” also refused to be interviewed. His spokesman, Colonel Thomas Cooper, told me, “General Baker can’t possibly have anything to say about the F-20, because he doesn’t know anything about it.” (Baker, a pilot, has flown the F-20.) Cooper said, “There’s no way we’re going to let you ask us about this.” Even General Richard Abel, the Air Force’s director of public affairs—the man whose job it is to communicate with the press-declined to talk about the F-20.

Of course, the Air Force could simply steal Northrop’s ideas. There would be little cause to shed tears for Northrop, which last year enjoyed $846 million in Pentagon business. Copying the best features of the F-20 is not the plan, however.

The plan is to continue building the F-15 and to step up production of the F-16 well into the 1990s, adding the AMRAAM missile and perhaps stealth features to both. If more fighters like the F-16 are needed—as evidenced by the Air Force’s intention to buy hundreds more—that same need could be met at a lower price by the F-20, which would not require the addition of stealth features, because its small size is itself radar-evasive. Buying F-20s is not on the Air Force’s agenda, however. F-15s and F-16s are scheduled to be equipped two years from now with new engines that will be more reliable than the F100s but will retain the thrust-at-all-costs design goal. The F-15 has been assigned a new mission to justify its continued production: long-distance tactical bombing, which the Pentagon calls “deep strike.” Although the F-15 was developed to be a high-altitude, supersonic missile-launcher, it will be employed as a low-altitude, subsonic bomb-dropper. The deep-strike F-15 will have no fewer than seven computer screens for its two-member crew to watch.

The Air Force has new fighter designs in the works, although none can be in production until the end of the decade, when most of the F-15s and F-16s expected will have been delivered. Two prototypes—the F-19 and the X-29—are being tested. The F-19 is a small fighter designed for maximum stealth; the X-29 has futuristic “forward-swept” wings for maximum cornering power, These planes are generally viewed as research projects, not as forerunners of production aircraft. Also in the early stages of development is an “advanced tactical fighter” (ATF).

The real object of the Air Force’s affections may be grander flying machines than any of these: spaceplanes. Getting military’s pilots into space is a goal that dates back to the Air Force’s experiments with the X-15 rocket plane in the 1950s. Stanley A. Tremaine, the deputy for development planning in the Air Force’s Aeronautical Systems Division, says that he expects that the ATF will be the last fighter the Air Force will ever build that is confined to the earth’s atmosphere. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, engineers are studying proposals for ‘trans-atmospheric vehicles” with engines powered by liquid hydrogen, similar to those on the space shuttle. These craft would blast off on rockets form a runway, fly into space, re-enter the atmosphere, and glide back to an airfield. Space cruisers, which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is designing, look roughly like Mercury capsules and carry one or two crew members. They would be launched into space on rockets, release a “cargo,” re-enter, and land suspended from parachutes.

Although one can safely assume that the cost of spaceplane fighters will be breathtaking, there is little indication of what they will do. DARPA’s “space cruiser” is billed as a “research vehicle,” but after the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs more research into capsule construction is hardly an urgent need. The space cruiser’s cargo probably would be an anti-satellite or anti-missile weapon of some kind, but why such a weapon should be toted by an expensive manned capsule, instead of being remote-controlled, is a mystery. Similarly, what a transatmospheric fighter might shoot in space that could not be shot as easily by unmanned weapons is hard to imagine. And once such a fighter re-entered the atmosphere, it would be at the mercy of ordinary endoatmospheric fighters of all descriptions, just as the space shuttle is at the mercy of any pilot who might care to shoot it down. But given Reagan’s enthusiasm for space weapons no matter how uncertain their purpose or practicality might be, and given the Air Force’s perception that as long as Reagan stays in office no price is too high, small wonder that a light conventional fighter like the F-20 evokes no interest.

General Dynamics, the builder of the F-16, is the nation’s largest defense contractor and also one of the best-protected in Congress. The company builds its fighter planes in Texas, the home state of John Tower, who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The F-16 factory is in the district of House Majority Leader Jim Wright. Northrop has its connection too, of course. Jones, its chairman, is said to have the ear of the White House. He has pushed for something to be done about his unsold plane, and the White House has in turn pressured the State Department and the Air Force to start talking up the F-20 overseas. But the real question is not why we aren’t trying harder to sell the F-20; it is why we aren’t keeping it for ourselves.

Northrop has never dared to suggest publicly that the Air Force should buy the F-20, and company officials dismiss the idea even in private, saying that nothing can possibly come of it, for bureaucratic reasons. Northrop also does not dare to push too hard, because the Air Force holds a trump card in the form of the Stealth bomber contract, which is potentially worth billions more than the F-20. In 1982 the Boeing Company became outraged that the Air Force was buying still more of the C-5 Galaxy, despite the C-5’s terrible record and despite the fact that a cargo version of the Boeing 747 would have cost less than half as much. Boeing broke a long-standing gentlemen’s agreement: it placed newspaper ads criticizing the C-5 and complained on Capitol Hill that the fix was in. The effort went nowhere, and a few months later the Air Force had its revenge, canceling without warning Boeing’s contract for the air-launched cruise missile. The message has not been lost on other defense contractors.

There is one way to overcome the Air Force’s institutional prejudice against an airplane that was developed somewhere else and doesn’t cost enough: through the leadership of the President and the Secretary of Defense. So far, neither has shown any willingness to challenge the way the Pentagon does business. Michael Burch, Weinberger’s press officer, told me that Weinberger has not considered talking to the Air Force about the F-20 and does not intend to consider it. “We don’t have any authority over what weapons they should or shouldn’t have; all we do is review their budget requests,” he said. This is an astonishing interpretation of the United States Constitution: that the Secretary of Defense has no control over the Air Force. At the moment, however, it would be hard to dispute.