Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Silent Eagle

Boeing recently unveiled its concept for the “Silent Eagle,” the next model in the F-15 family designed to keep the venerable super-fighter in production for a few years more. In the Silent Eagle design, Boeing is hoping to offer foreign air forces an “affordable” degree of stealth. While the specifics are highly classified, the basic concepts behind designing a stealth aircraft aren’t hard to grasp:

--Introduce as few protuberances or angles as possible in the overall layout.

--Utilize radar-absorbing materials in the aircraft’s structure

--Submerge the engines in a way that protects the compressors from exposure to radar

--Reduce the noise and infra-red signatures produced by the engines through cooling, shielding the nozzles, sound dampening, and other methods.

The F-15 is still a world-class fighter aircraft, especially in the hands of a highly-trained pilot. Continuous avionics upgrades could keep it competitive with super-fighters like the F-22. But the F-22’s distinct advantage is that the airframe was designed to be stealthy from the start. While Boeing has done a few things to the F-15 airframe to reduce its radar return (submerged weapons carriage, an exportable radar-absorbent material coating on the airframe, and outward-canted fins,) it’s still a decidedly non-stealthy airplane.

Friendly foreign air forces have to face the question of whether they need stealthy combat aircraft in their arsenals. In scenarios like Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, stealth was not as vital a factor as it was in Operation Desert Storm because of the enemy’s degraded air defenses. Stealth often becomes a hindrance because internal weapons carriage reduces the overall payload the aircraft can carry.

I’m interested to see if anybody is interested in buying the F-15 “Silent Eagle,” especially with the price of the F-35 rising. The F-35 was designed with an “affordable” degree of stealth in mind, but it’s quickly becoming as expensive as the F-22 (an airplane which is faster, stealthier, more maneuverable, and just a better all-around air-to-air fighter aircraft.) "Silent Eagle" is the poor man's F-35, sacrificing the F-35's level of stealthiness for affordability, superior maneuverability, a higher top speed, a dual crew, and twin-engine reliability.

Japan is likely to be the target of Boeing's "Silent Eagle" marketing. The Japanese already fly F-15's but really want the F-22. With the US Congress prohibiting F-22 exports, Japan will likely settle for the F-35 unless Boeing can make a better offer (i.e., one that includes a higher degree of the plane's production in Japan) with the "Silent Eagle."

A Jem of an administrator?

The hunt for a NASA administratorgot even messier today, with the nomination of retired Major General Scott Gration to the position of envoy to Sudan. Formerly the rumored front-runner for the job, his position has been taken by astronaut Mae Jemison in the rumor mill's pool of candidates.

I take the Jemison rumor with more than a grain of salt. My personal preference is still for Lester Lyles or Steve Isakowitz, of the people whose names have been floated. But with that being said, I'm interested in the Jemison rumors because I've actually met Dr. Jemison during a lecture and a Q&A session. I came away highly impressed with her intellect, but she definitely struck me as a scientist moreso than a manager or a leader. Maybe it was just the subject of her lecture which blinds me to the possibility of her as an administrator, but she strikes me as somebody who takes a very global view of utilizing human technological prowess to solve social problems and alleviate human suffering. These goals are very admirable, but they're not completely aligned with the NASA mission.

Service as an astronaut does not qualify one to be NASA administrator. At best, it should be viewed neutrally for an administrator candidate. Management acumen is the key here, and that's the reason why I view General Lyles or Steve Isakowitz so highly compared to the other rumored candidates. That might not mean the others are bad managers, it's just that they haven't had the opportunities to demonstrate it on a large scale. With the agency in a precarious position, I'd like to see a proven track record before supporting a candidate.