The U.S. Air Force requested that the National Research Council (NRC), through the National Materials Advisory Board, conduct a study to determine how Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs could be used more effectively to develop and implement technologies to improve the cost-effectiveness of maintenance and operation of aging aircraft. The Committee on Small Business Innovation Research to Support Aging Aircraft was established to:
review the overall goals and specific program objectives of the Air Force aging aircraft program, as well as current SBIR projects related to aging in the areas of structural integrity, corrosion, coatings, nondestructive investigation, and maintenance and repair
review technical and administrative guidelines and requirements for the Air Force SBIR program
review SBIR programs by other organizations (e.g., the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) that could be applicable to aging aircraft
identify critical technology areas that (1) would address the technical goals and priorities of the Air Force aging aircraft program and (2) could be included in SBIR programs
recommend criteria for selecting SBIR topics in the identified technology areas
The committee did not examine uses of SBIR funds for technologies other than for aging aircraft. It met four times. At the first meeting, the committee reviewed the national goals of the SBIR program and was given an overview of the Air Force SBIR and aging aircraft programs. At the second meeting, the committee reviewed the details of the Air Force's existing aging aircraft programs and the SBIR process. The committee then attended the 2000 Aging Aircraft Conference held in St. Louis,
Missouri, May 15–18, 2000, to inform delegates about the study and to discuss the SBIR program with them. The committee also held a closed session, the third meeting, at which members exchanged observations, ideas, and conclusions. At the fourth meeting, the committee agreed on the conclusions and recommendations for this report.
This report summarizes the committee's overall evaluations and recommends how the Air Force's SBIR program can support aging aircraft. Chapter 1 is an introduction to the study. Chapter 2 is a discussion of the Air Force's aging aircraft program; the discussion includes technical areas and interagency issues. Chapter 3 is a discussion of the Air Force SBIR program and SBIR topics on aging aircraft. Chapter 4 covers technical areas that could be advanced significantly by the SBIR program. Chapter 5 is a discussion of SBIR process improvements.
Aging Aircraft Fleet
Aircraft more than 20 years old are the backbone of the Air Force 's total operational force. Some of these aircraft will be retired and replaced with new aircraft, but their replacements are at least several years away. Replacements for the remaining older aircraft are not even planned. Some aircraft that have been in service for more than 25 years are expected to remain in active service for another 25 years or more. The enormous cost of replacing existing planes is one of the prime reasons for this situation. If the life of existing planes can be extended at reasonable cost, then substantial savings, or at least substantial cost deferments, can be realized. The extended service of older aircraft so far has been possible only through aggressive maintenance and repair and aircraft modification programs. But these costly, labor-intensive measures depend on high levels of skill and craftsmanship.
One of the most pervasive problems is corrosion. The implementation of advanced technologies to prevent corrosion would significantly improve field and depot maintenance procedures and help to ensure reliable, safe operation of older aircraft.
Small Business Innovation Research
The SBIR program, created in 1982 by the Small Business Innovation Development Act, is designed to stimulate technology innovation by small, private-sector businesses, provide technical and scientific solutions to challenging problems,
and encourage small businesses to market new technologies in the private sector. Federal agencies with more than $100 million in extramural research and development (R&D) are required to allocate 2.5 percent of their research budgets to small businesses. In 1998, approximately $1.1 billion was allocated. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), with $540 million, has the largest single program; approximately 40 percent of that amount comes from Air Force channels.
Determining how to allocate these funds to the myriad Air Force agencies requesting funding is a difficult challenge. Historically, the Air Force SBIR program has been defined largely by the R&D directorates of the Air Force Research Laboratory. Many of the resulting programs were focused on solving important problems identified by customers within the Air Force, but these customers were not consistently brought into the SBIR allocation process even though they contributed resources to the Air Force SBIR pool. More customer participation would not only ensure that important problems are being addressed, but also that effective processes are put in place to transition new technologies. The need for more active customer participation and effective technology transition was recognized at the DOD level to be an important SBIR program issue across all the services and defense agencies. Formal direction to remedy this situation DOD-wide was issued in 1999 by the DOD undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology. In response to this guidance, the Air Force significantly revised its SBIR processes, bringing in all the contributing customers, including the aging aircraft system program offices and Air Force air logistics centers, as the direct sustainment community stakeholders.
AIR FORCE AGING AIRCRAFT PROGRAM
To varying degrees, all older aircraft have encountered, or can be expected to encounter, aging problems, including fatigue cracking, stress-corrosion cracking, corrosion, and wear. Through the Aircraft Structural Integrity Program and through durability and damage-tolerance assessments of older aircraft, the Air Force has identified many potential problems, developed aircraft-tracking programs, developed force structural-maintenance plans, and taken maintenance actions to ensure the safety, readiness, and extended life of its aircraft. The continued operation of older aircraft depends on improved inspections, evaluations, and maintenance. Recognizing the challenges of managing and updating an aging fleet, the Air Force sponsored an NRC study in 1997, Aging of U.S. Air Force Aircraft, which identified promising technologies and research opportunities for addressing the structural issues critical to the aging of fixed-wing aircraft, particularly with reference to fatigue, corrosion, inspection, and repair (NRC, 1997). The report recommended that the management and oversight of all aging aircraft functions at the Wright-Patterson Air
Force Base be placed under the guidance of a single technical leader. In accordance with this recommendation, the Air Force created the Aging Aircraft Technologies Team (AATT), which includes representatives of the three technical areas related to aging aircraft: science and technology, technology transition, and systems engineering (structural assessments). The goal of the AATT is to coordinate activities to address identified needs in the areas of widespread fatigue damage, corrosion-fatigue interactions, structural repairs, dynamics, health monitoring, nondestructive evaluation and inspection (NDE/NDI), and various aircraft subsystems.
The aging aircraft program has adopted the following technical objectives:
correcting structural deterioration that could threaten aircraft safety
preventing or minimizing structural deterioration that could become an excessive economic burden or could adversely affect force readiness
predicting, for the purpose of future force planning, when the maintenance burden will become so high, or the aircraft availability so poor, that retaining the aircraft in the inventory will no longer be viable
A major new aging aircraft program under AATT's oversight is the Technology Transition Program. The program budget was $5 million in 1999 and $14 million in 2001, and it is expected to increase. The program funding that comes from Program Element 6.5, or Engineering and Manufacturing Development (PE 6.5 - EMD), is the only new funding that has been made available since the 1997 NRC report, and its impact on the total Air Force aging aircraft situation has been positive. In fact, many of the recommendations in the NRC report have been acted upon, and more will be addressed in the years to come. The Air Force has made significant progress in the areas of widespread fatigue damage, dynamics, and structural repairs. However, not enough emphasis has been put on the areas of corrosion, corrosion-fatigue, stress-corrosion cracking, and automated NDE/NDI.
PRIORITY TECHNICAL AREAS AND PROCESS IMPROVEMENTS
As a result of its deliberation and discussion, the committee developed several recommendations, which are presented in Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 through Chapter 5 of this report. The technical areas in which the aging aircraft program could more effectively take advantage of the capability or potential of the SBIR program are summarized in Chapter 4. The committee concluded that SBIR could be most beneficial if projects were concentrated in a few technical areas, such as localized corrosion and NDE/NDI.
Recommendation. The committee recommends that more emphasis should be placed on using the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in the near term to solve problems related to localized corrosion (including galvanic corrosion and corrosion fatigue) and nondestructive evaluation and inspection (NDE/NDI). Solutions to the problems of (1) modeling and understanding galvanic corrosion, stress-corrosion cracking, corrosion fatigue, and all the other insidious forms of corrosion and (2) developing tools for NDE/NDI and software to analyze data in these areas should be solicited from the small business community. Because many of the innovations will be specific to the Air Force, the end user (in the Air Force) should be involved in the Phase I and Phase II award process. In addition, if the innovation is Air Force-specific, non-SBIR funding for Phase III may be an Air Force responsibility.
This report focuses on technical approaches to using SBIR to support aging aircraft. In this context, the committee also reviewed Air Force SBIR administrative processes in some detail and determined that changes in certain processes would help the Air Force to address aging aircraft technologies, as well as other technology areas. Although the committee did not consider all potential SBIR process improvement options and alternatives, it offers in Chapter 5 some recommendations in several areas—including the selection of SBIR topics, the transition from Phase I to Phase II, the use of white papers in preparation for Phase I, management and the timing of contract awards, customer participation, and outreach and communication—for careful consideration by the Air Force. Because only SBIR projects related to aging aircraft were considered, the Air Force will have to determine if these recommendations on SBIR administrative processes apply to other aspects of its SBIR program as well.