The U.S. Air Force has many aircraft that are 20 to 35 years old (and older), which constitute the backbone of the total operational force. The Air Force plans to retire these aircraft and replace some of them with new aircraft, but their replacements are at least several years away. Replacements for the remainder are not even planned. Because of the enormous cost of replacing existing planes, 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. If the life of existing planes could be extended at reasonable cost, the Air Force would realize substantial savings or, at least, cost deferments. Protracted depot operations and maintenance (O&M) and other life extension programs decrease fleet readiness, and commanders have been reluctant to remove planes from service unless their timely return can be guaranteed.
Extended service lives of older aircraft have been possible only through aggressive maintenance and repair and aircraft modification programs, which can be costly and labor intensive and depend on high levels of skill and craftsmanship. One of the most pervasive problems is corrosion. Air Force surveys of the cost of corrosion in 1990 and 1997 showed that corrosion-driven maintenance costs the Air Force many hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and these costs are steadily increasing (Cooke et al., 1998). The implementation of advanced technologies to prevent corrosion would significantly improve field and depot maintenance procedures and help to ensure the reliable, safe operation of older aircraft.
The Air Force has been well aware of the challenges of managing and updating an aging fleet for some time. In 1997, the Air Force sponsored a National Research Council (NRC) study, Aging of U.S. Air Force Aircraft, which identified promising technologies and research opportunities for addressing critical structural issues surrounding the aging of fixed-wing aircraft, particularly fatigue, corrosion, inspection, and repair (NRC, 1997). That report recommended that the Air Force (1) implement near-term actions (3 to 5 years) to improve the maintenance and management of aging aircraft; (2) sponsor near-term research
and development (R&D) to support the near-term actions; and (3) initiate a long-term (more than 5 years) R&D program to develop mature technologies. The highest-priority research issues were reduction of maintenance costs, improvement of force readiness (particularly in the areas of corrosion prevention and control and prevention of stress corrosion cracking), and the development of automated, nondestructive evaluation methods. More recently the Steering Committee for Government-Industry Partnerships of the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy of the NRC published the proceedings of a symposium held on February 28, 1998, in Washington, D.C., The Small Business Innovation Research Program: Challenges and Opportunities (NRC, 1999a), and The Small Business Innovation Research Program: An Assessment of the Department of Defense Fast Track Initiative (NRC, 2000). The present study is another indication of the Air Force's concern about the problems of aging aircraft.
AGING AIRCRAFT PROGRAM
In 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 (ASIP) and through durability and damage-tolerance assessments of older aircraft, the Air Force has already identified many potential problems, developed aircraft-tracking programs, developed force structural-maintenance plans, and taken maintenance actions to ensure safety and readiness and extend the service life of the aircraft. However, the continued operation of older aircraft will depend on improving inspection, evaluation, and maintenance. The 1997 NRC 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 relationships, 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 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.
SMALL BUSINESS INNOVATION RESEARCH PROGRAM
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program was begun by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the late 1970s. Recognizing that small businesses could play a key role in meeting the research needs of the federal government, Congress enacted a program in 1982 that included all federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in extramural research. The SBIR program was reauthorized in 1986, 1992, and 2000. The funding for fiscal year 2000 (FY00) is calculated as a set-aside of 2.5 percent of the extramural research budget for each agency. Currently, extramural research funded by the federal government amounts to about $60 billion, $1.2 billion of which comes from the SBIR program.
In 1983, Congress also enacted a pilot program, the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, which it reauthorized in 1997 and 1998 until 2001. The SBIR program allows partnerships in the form of subcontracts; the STTR program mandates partnerships with academia, federally funded research and development centers, and other nongovernmental organizations. The STTR set-aside is 0.15 percent, and agencies with more than $1 billion of extramural research participate.
Currently, 10 federal agencies participate in the SBIR program; the top 5 also participate in the STTR program. In decreasing order of funding, the 10 agencies are the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy, NSF, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Education. The aim of the SBIR program, as stated in the legislation, is to:
increase private-sector commercialization of technology developed through federal R&D funds
increase small business participation in federal R&D
improve the federal government's dissemination of information about the SBIR program, particularly information on participation by female- and minority-owned small businesses
Agencies promote these aims to different degrees. Grant-awarding agencies, such as the NSF, emphasize private-sector commercialization; contracting agencies, such as DOD, emphasize increased participation in R&D to overcome specific technical needs. The SBIR program has been subjected to several reviews by the Government Accounting Office and independent organizations, and after almost two decades of existence, the SBIR program has been given a favorable overall assessment.
The SBIR program is intended 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. DOD has the largest SBIR program at $540 million, approximately 40 percent of which comes from the Air Force.
SBIR funds are awarded in two phases. During Phase I, the technical feasibility of a new concept is validated; this phase lasts from 6 to 9 months and may cost as much as $100,000. Phase II is the R &D phase; this phase can last as long as 2 years and costs as much as $750,000. Phase III, the commercialization of the Phase II results, requires private-sector or other non-SBIR funding; securing non-SBIR funding for Phase III technologies mainly of interest to DOD and the necessary customer commitments for successful transition is a considerable challenge and is not usually included in DOD's plans.
It is important to note that the Air Force sustainment community is not a direct contributor to the SBIR resource pool because O& M procurement accounts are not subject to the SBIR set-aside. The Air Force has chosen, however, to make the air logistic centers participants in the program on the assumption that SBIR programs properly focused could address critical technical needs of aging aircraft. How to meet these needs through SBIR funding is the subject of this report.
STATEMENT OF TASK AND METHODOLOGY
The primary objective of this study was to determine how SBIR programs could be used more effectively to develop and successfully transition technology that would promote the cost-effective maintenance and operation of aging aircraft. The committee did not examine the use of the SBIR funds for other technologies. The study is restricted to the needs of the aging aircraft community and
specifically to aging airframes. It 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 technologies. The committee did not consider all potential SBIR process improvement options and alternatives, but it offers in chapter 5 some recommendations 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 administrative processes apply to other aspects of its SBIR program.
The objective of this study was to identify ways the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Aging Aircraft Technologies Team could use the SBIR program more effectively to develop technologies that would address the problems of inspecting, characterizing, operating, and maintaining aging aircraft. The committee was established to do the following:
review the goals of the Air Force aging aircraft program and current SBIR projects related to aging in each technology area, including structural integrity, corrosion, coatings, nondestructive investigation, and maintenance and repair
review technical and administrative guidelines and requirements for the Air Force SBIR program
review applicable SBIR programs of other organizations (e.g., the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) that could be applicable to aging aircraft
identify critical technology areas that (1) address the technical goals and priorities of the Air Force aging aircraft program and (2) could be advanced significantly by SBIR programs
recommend criteria for selecting SBIR topics in the identified technology areas
The NRC's National Materials Advisory Board appointed a committee of experts in research management, SBIR requirements, materials and processes, structural mechanics, fracture mechanics, corrosion, nondestructive evaluation, and maintenance and repair procedures. Appendix A provides brief biographies of the committee members.
The committee met four times. At the first meeting, in Washington, D.C., January 25-26, 2000, the committee reviewed the national goals of the SBIR program. The second meeting, in Dayton, Ohio, March 14-15, 2000, was focused on a review of existing aging aircraft programs and the SBIR process. The third meeting included participation in the 2000 Aging Aircraft Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 15-18, 2000, to provide a broad perspective on national and
international programs (UTC, 2000). More than 600 participants from several countries attended the conference, indicating that aging aircraft are a worldwide concern. The plenary talks highlighted the seriousness of the problem in both military and civilian aviation. These talks complemented the three simultaneous sessions that followed. The committee chair made a presentation at the plenary session of the conference to acquaint the delegates with the committee's mission, goals, and progress, and conference delegates were invited to meet informally with the committee to discuss their needs and understanding of the SBIR program as it applied to aging aircraft. The committee also held a closed session at the conference, during which several observations and conclusions were discussed. At the fourth committee meeting, held at the NRC study center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, June 21-22, 2000, the committee agreed on the conclusions and recommendations of this study. (See Appendix B for meeting agendas.)
This report summarizes the committee's overall evaluation and offers recommendations on how the Air Force 's SBIR program can support aging aircraft. Chapter 2 discusses the Air Force's aging aircraft program, aging aircraft technical areas, and interagency issues. Chapter 3 discusses the Air Force SBIR program and topics on aging aircraft. Chapter 4 outlines the technical problems that could be improved significantly by the SBIR program. Chapter 5 discusses improvements in SBIR processes that could allow them to better address the technical areas relevant to aging aircraft, as well as all other technical areas.