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military must increasingly rely on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies for its avionics hardware and software. Although COTS items are generally less expensive than comparable items designed especially to meet military specifications, the technology-refresh cycle for COTS is typically 18 months or less, which exacerbates the obsolescence problem for aircraft whose lifetimes are measured in decades. The short refresh cycle is driven mostly by the tremendous advances in computer systems, which comprise an increasing percentage of avionics content.

When a new aircraft is designed, the latest advances in avionics technology can be used, and strategies for managing obsolescence can and should be built in from the beginning. However, long weapon-system development and procurement cycles virtually guarantee that some avionics systems will be obsolete by the time they are fielded. The F-22 Raptor program, for example, which began nearly 20 years ago, is still at least five years away from fielding aircraft in squadron strength. The program now budgets $50 million a year to replace “old” avionics with new hardware and software. By the time the first production F-22 rolls off the line, its avionics systems will have undergone four technology-refresh cycles.

According to Lt. General Robert Raggio, Commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center, the Air Force needs an additional $250 million to $275 million per year to address the aging avionics problem in both legacy and new aircraft, not including the cost of training maintenance personnel, suppliers, and operators. Each technology-refresh cycle requires regression testing and flight testing, training for pilots and support personnel, and configuration and spares management, which all add to the implementation cost. Cumulative costs for diminishing manufacturing sources/out-of-production parts (DMS/OP) are projected to reach close to $1 billion each for the F-15, F-22, and U-2.

Without a coherent strategy for managing and containing the total ownership cost (TOC) of avionics systems, both for legacy and new aircraft, the maintenance of these systems will demand an ever-increasing share of the Air Force budget. Managing the DMS/OP problem alone is consuming a larger and larger portion of aircraft program office budgets. If overall DoD budgets remain flat, expenditures on DMS/OP threaten to consume funds that would otherwise be spent on modernizing the aircraft fleet and bringing operational capabilities up to the levels required to counter evolving threats.


In response to a request by the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, the National Research Council convened the Committee on Aging Avionics in Military Aircraft, under the auspices of the Air Force Science and Technology Board, to conduct this study. The study committee was given the following tasks:

  • Gather information from DoD, other government agencies, and industrial sources on the status of, and issues surrounding, the aging avionics problem. This should include briefings from and discussions with senior industry executives and military acquisition and support personnel. A part of this activity should include a review of Air Force Materiel Command's study on diminishing manufacturing sources to recommend ways to mitigate avionics obsolescence.

  • Provide recommendations for new approaches and innovative techniques to improve management of aging avionics, with the goal of helping the Air Force to enhance supportability and replacement of aging and obsolescing avionics and minimize associated life cycle costs. Comment on the division of technology responsibility between DoD and industry.


The committee recognizes that there are many dimensions and/or objectives in any strategy for managing the total DMS/OP problem and that individual corrective actions for a particular aircraft platform will depend on the specific characteristics of its installed avionics systems. More than 25 organizations, both inside and outside the Air Force, are working on various aspects of the DMS/OP problem. Although each organization is effective in its limited chartered activities, there is very little coordination among them, and the results of each project are not broadly distributed to the DoD or to the Air Force Enterprise. With a coherent DoD/Air Force strategy for dealing with the DMS/OP problem, collective/coordinated management of these diverse activities could be established, which could result in more productive use of results and minimal redundant expenditures of scarce resources.

A modular open-system approach (MOSA) has been endorsed by the Air Force as a way of developing scalable, more easily upgradable avionics systems and reducing TOCs in both legacy and new aircraft. The

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