A digitized Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, animated into a fighter display, kicked off Roper’s presentation at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. USAF
Photo Caption & Credits

Roper’s NGAD Bombshell

Oct. 1, 2020

Digital engineering is real—and accelerating change right now.

Rebutting doubters that the Air Force is on the cusp of a new digital revolution, service acquisition chief Will Roper revealed at AFA’s September virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference that a secret prototype of USAF’s next fighter—designed and built using the digital thread method—is already flying.

“If you think we don’t care about physical world results, we do,” Roper said in a slickly produced keynote speech. The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, meant to complement or succeed the F-22 and F-35, he said, “has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing.” 

Roper disclosed no further details about when the aircraft flew, who built it, or what records it broke. Industry observers guessed that these were more likely related to the speed of contracting and prototyping than its physical performance.

“We don’t want our adversaries to know” NGAD’s capabilities, Roper told reporters—or “when they’ll show up.” What he did want was to rebut those who’ve challenged the new digital approach to aircraft production.

We’re going to train on it, we’re going to drill on it, until this is the way we do business.Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition

“Many people in the Pentagon and elsewhere say, ‘I can see how you could apply that approach to a trainer like the T-7, but you could not build a cutting-edge warfighting system that way,’” Roper said. “And I’ve had to listen to that and nod my head and say, ‘Well, you may be right’”— even though he knew NGAD was already flying.

“There are too many possible futures for us to pick one,” Roper said. The Air Force must “choose to be agile, or we can lose.” The idea that the government spends 80 percent of research and development investment to commercial industry’s 20 percent has flipped, he said, so the military must leverage commercial capabilities to compete with China and Russia. 

The digital revolution is one the Air Force can readily adapt, he said. But he also warned that the defense establishment cannot be satisfied merely adopting commercial technology—because those same solutions are also available to others.  

Roper revealed the NGAD flights to gain “greater credibility in the process,” and convince those members of the acquisition team not “read in” on the secret jet to understand the concept works—and that they need to “get smart on this technology.” 

“We’re going to train on it, we’re going to drill on it, until this is the way we do business,” Roper said. “This is not just digital design. This is digital acquisition.”

Accelerating ABMS

Roper’s theme wrapped around the latest Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) “on-ramp” experiment, which he defined as creating the “internet of military things” to enable joint all-domain command and control. Once fully established, ABMS will help the joint force “fight at machine speed,” retaining decision advantage over adversaries, he said. 

Case in point: Roper shared video of Army artillery shooting down a cruise missile with coordinates provided by Air Force assets. Solving this previously “wicked hard problem” that could not be solved without machine-to-machine connectivity and decision-making, Roper said, was a “watershed event” that will pay huge dividends for Air Force base defense. He credited the feat to joint efforts between the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which Roper ran before moving to his current post.

The “human advantage” in warfare—having better-trained, more knowledgeable people—is not enough anymore, Roper insisted. “The only thing … worse than fighting against AI [artificial intelligence] is fighting without it.” U.S. adversaries are already embracing such technology. 

American military technology is going to have to become even more “amazing,” because all comers will have access to commercial tech, he observed.   

Changing World 

Digital design isn’t new; it dates to the 1980s. What is new is that today’s high-powered processing, enabled by cloud computing, can simulate performance to a greater level of fidelity than ever before.  It can alert engineers to what other changes must be accommodated if, for example, they change the depth of the wheel well, or shift the aircraft’s center of gravity. Advanced programs can also make some such changes automatically.

The new methods were used to design Boeing’s T-7 trainer and Northrop Grumman’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile. On the latter, it allowed dozens of whole-system design permutations when, in the past, only a few could have been explored in the time allotted. The technology also designs the production method as it goes, so that the transition from digital to physical model is quick and seamless.

In 2017, a T-X with afterburners flies in tests in St. Louis. Now dubbed the T-7 Red Hawk, in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the Boeing/Saab aircraft will replace the T-38 as USAF’s premier fighter trainer. David Torrence/Boeing

The “learning curve is dead,” Roper said of the period of production for a complex system during which workers have to correct initial mistakes. The two examples of the T-7 trainer which Boeing designed, built, and flew in the T-X competition are “the two most identical airplanes in the world,” Roper asserted. Boeing has noted that the aircraft came together without shims to help fit structural parts together, and that the fitting of major structural components in the fuselage was completed in minutes, rather than multiple work days as in the past. 


Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett, in her keynote address during the event, said that systems developed in the new digital method will carry the preface of a lowercase “e” in their designation. The two T-7 demonstrators will be referred to henceforth as “eT-7A,” but the production version will simply be the T-7A. She and Roper indicated that USAF will shift talking about such aircraft from Roper’s initial coinage of a “Digital Century Series” to simply the “eSeries.”

The eSeries is “so much more” than simply a digital rendering of something “we’re going to build physically,” Roper emphasized. “The ability to build an airplane the first time as if you had already built … 100” of them is “game-changing.”

Roper said the Air Force is adopting the same technologies used in the design of Formula One race cars, which are designed digitally and go directly from the machine to physical production. New mass-produced cars are built the same way, he pointed out.   

The revolution also demands a change in the mindset of how companies build the business case for defense work, Roper said. His goal is to “flip” the Air Force from spending 30 percent of a program’s cost on design and fabrication and 70 percent on maintaining the system for decades after. As long as the Air Force remains “trapped” in the model of prioritizing sustainment over introducing new systems, it can’t win, he said. 

Roper wants to abolish the “incentive” for companies to gamble their own money on designs in hopes of “getting their money back” through later support and modification work. The Air Force has to make the design part profitable, Roper said, and increase the frequency of projects such that no single program is an “existential … must-win” for any company. It will also expand the number of competitors by not requiring a designer to already be a traditional aircraft builder. 

By making the new systems modular, with an open architecture, anyone will be able to compete for upgrades, Roper asserted. Then, by retiring airplanes after only 15 years or so, the Air Force can save tremendously on not having to rebuild them in depots for three decades or more; and only come out with a freshened old machine. 

It’s still unclear whether the secret aircraft that flew incorporates all of the NGAD characteristics, or just one or two elements thereof. At the 2019 ASC event, then-Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said NGAD is an omnibus program to develop “five key technologies … that we don’t intend” to have “all come together on a single platform.” He said the term “family of systems” is often overused, but “truly, that’s the next generation of air dominance.” These technologies, he added, will likely proceed “and accelerate at different paces” and, as some become available, they’d be fielded onto “existing platforms.”

Without itemizing the five key technologies, Goldfein alluded to new engines, sensors, weapons, and connectivity. He also referred to artificial intelligence making it possible to have manned combat aircraft escorted by unmanned aircraft to do especially dangerous missions, or as flying magazines of extra weapons.  

Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark D. Kelly, in a press conference at vASC, said his understanding of the eSeries is probably best exemplified not by the Century Series of the 1960s, but the F-117 of the late 1970s. The F-117 was “unique, game-changing,” Kelly explained. “We … fielded it, operated it for a specific amount of time, and then moved on to another rapidly emerging technology that we just couldn’t adapt to that exact same platform;” presumably all-aspect stealth mated to high agility and low-observable radar emissions. 

The F-117 process led directly to using the platform in war, to great success, Kelly noted. “And then, before it got to the life cycle spot of 15 years and beyond—when it was really going to be cost-prohibitive to operate—we moved on,” he noted.

Roper reported over the summer that he had assigned a team to build the “business case” for the NGAD by comparing the costs of designing and building an aircraft the new digital way versus the old way, saying that even if the cost was higher, he’d push to proceed with the digital methods.

He reported in a vASC press conference that the NGAD acquisition strategy is finished, but has not yet been greenlighted by the top Air Force leadership. 

An animation from Roper’s presentation shows digital Airmen preparing to switch nose cone sections on a notional modular unmanned aircraft. USAF

Roper released a white paper to go with his presentation, “The New Digital Acquisition Reality.” In it he provided a chart showing that the digital approach he is promoting—building more different kinds of aircraft, but buying only a notional 75 of each type—will cost 18 percent more to develop and 25 percent more to produce. Then, however, it will save 81 percent in modifications and 49 percent in operations and support costs. The chart suggested that after 50 years of this rhythm, aircraft would be introduced every six to eight years and have an average age of eight years.

A typical fighter’s overall cost using the new system “would drop … by 10 percent over a 30-year life-cycle acquisition,” with savings spread across RDT&E and O&S, the document said. 

Roper also said the same principles being applied to aircraft and the ABMS is being applied to spacecraft, as well.

“You might be thinking … a replacement for a current system, like a trainer or … the Minuteman III, [means] it’s going to be some time before the Air Force and Space Force can take on cutting-edge things like satellites and … weapons. I’m here to tell you that within the Space Force we’re already working on the first two eSats.”

The objective, stated Roper, is “taking on the vicious circle itself, trying to speed up the cycle in which we design things, by buying iteratively, improving, spiraling aircraft in a digital century series, or ‘eSeries’ approach. … It’s the Formula One example crossing into defense and giving us power and agility we never had before. So, NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world, exploring things that cost us time and money.” 

Digital engineering “isn’t a fluke,” Roper insisted. “It’s not a point, it’s a trend. It is our future, and I’m excited to see where this trend goes and hopefully, see it end that vicious circle that we have been trapped in for so long.”