The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge: A Half Century of U.S. Fighter Aircraft R&D

Mark A. Lorell
Hugh P. Levaux
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 1
Published by: RAND Corporation
Pages: 245
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mr939af
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  • Book Info
    The Cutting Edge
    Book Description:

    The proposition that innovation is critical in the cost-effective design and development of successful military aircraft is still subject to some debate. RAND research indicates that innovation is promoted by intense competition among three or more industry competitors. Given the critical policy importance of this issue in the current environment of drastic consolidation of the aerospace defense industry, the authors here examine the history of the major prime contractors in developing jet fighters since World War II. They make use of an extensive RAND database that includes nearly all jet fighters, fighter-attack aircraft, and bombers developed and flown by U.S. industry since 1945, as well as all related prototypes, modifications, upgrades, etc. The report concludes that (1) experience matters, because of the tendency to specialize and thus to develop system-specific expertise; (2) yet the most dramatic innovations and breakthroughs came from secondary or marginal players trying to compete with the industry leaders; and (3) dedicated military R&D conducted or directly funded by the U.S. government has been critical in the development of new higher-performance fighters and bombers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8330-4860-8
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. PREFACE
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  4. FIGURES
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. PHOTOGRAPHS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. TABLES
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. SUMMARY
    (pp. xv-xx)
  8. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  9. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  10. Chapter One INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-14)

    For the first three decades of the history of military aviation—from the early years of World War I until the middle of World War II—U.S. fighter technology generally lagged well behind the leading-edge developments in Germany, the United Kingdom, and other foreign countries. However, the shock of deadly confrontations with superior Japanese fighters early in World War II and with advanced German jet fighters at the end of the war helped change the attitude of the U.S. government toward advanced military aircraft research and development (R&D). After the war, these factors, combined with the growing tensions of the...

  11. Chapter Two THE 1920s TO THE 1950s: THE LONG ROAD TOWARD U.S. LEADERSHIP IN FIGHTER R&D
    (pp. 15-50)

    The first era of jet-fighter development extends from the mid-1940s through the beginning of the 1960s. During this period, the introduction and refinement of the turbojet engine led to a major technology revolution in fighter R&D. The performance, weight, complexity, and cost of fighters dramatically increased. For the first time in history, American companies took the unquestioned lead in world fighter technology development.

    During the first decade and a half of the jet age, contractors developed America’s first and second generations of jet fighters and bombers, while nearly all other military aircraft, as well as commercial transports, began transitioning from...

  12. Chapter Three THE SUPERSONIC REVOLUTION
    (pp. 51-88)

    The increases in speed and altitude capabilities of fighters and bombers, as well as weight and cost, which had begun with the introduction of jet engines in the 1940s, escalated even more dramatically during the 1950s. This was due both to rapid advances in technology, which permitted development of supersonic fighters, and to the mission performance goals required by the new prominence of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.

    Throughout most of the 1950s, President Eisenhower’s heavy reliance on a deterrent policy of “massive retaliation” led to an emphasis on specialized strategic and tactical nuclear missions for the armed...

  13. Chapter Four THE 1960s AND 1970s: ACQUISITION REFORM, DOCTRINAL FERMENT
    (pp. 89-102)

    The first period of jet-fighter R&D, as discussed in the previous two chapters, can be characterized as a time of revolutionary technological change. The second period—which stretches from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s—also witnessed new technology developments and capability improvements, including fly-by-wire (FBW) flight-control systems, negative static stability, operational variable-geometry fighters, the beginnings of stealth, and sustained Mach 3+ flight. Nonetheless, none of these technological advances transformed the basic fighter platform to an extent comparable to that caused by the introduction of the jet engine and supersonic flight in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite great technological advances,...

  14. Chapter Five REVIVAL OF THE AIR-SUPERIORITY FIGHTER
    (pp. 103-128)

    The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed the development of two new Air Force fighters—the F-15 and F-16—and two new Navy fighters—the F-14 and F/A-18—that would become the mainstays of America’s tactical fighter forces for the remainder of the century. In particular, the two Air Force fighters and the F/A-18 represent a substantial change from many of the trends evident in previous fighter modernization decisions. The F-15 was the first Air Force fighter since the development of the North American F-86 in the late 1940s that was optimized for maneuverability and agility for dogfights with enemy fighters....

  15. Chapter Six THE 1970s TO THE 1990s: THE STEALTH REVOLUTION
    (pp. 129-154)

    The stealth era, which got fully under way in the mid-1970s behind a wall of strict secrecy, ushered in a new era of rapid technology change. Armed with precision-guided munitions, the new generation of American stealthy combat aircraft dramatically increased the potential combat effectiveness of air power. Developed and applied primarily by U.S. contractors, stealth technology catapulted American developers of military aircraft into an unquestioned position of world leadership. The stealth revolution transformed military aircraft airframe design and development and led to major changes in industry leadership in fighter R&D.

    Stealth technology aims at reducing as much as possible the...

  16. Chapter Seven CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS
    (pp. 155-162)

    Great caution must be exercised in drawing definitive conclusions from the type of broad and general historical overview presented here. Nonetheless, the following observations based on the U.S. historical experience seem justified.

    The central role of experience in ensuring the successful design and development of new jet fighters over the past five decades can be inferred from the tendency of aerospace prime contractors to specialize. Specialization came about because firms tended to develop competitive advantages in specific product areas by building up experience and focusing on R&D directly relevant to these areas. This experience resulted in system-specific capabilities—using the...

  17. Appendix A DATABASE DESCRIPTION
    (pp. 163-168)
  18. Appendix B DATABASE
    (pp. 169-200)
  19. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 201-208)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 209-220)
  21. ABOUT THE AUTHORS
    (pp. 221-222)