The XQ-58A Valkyrie, shown in this illustration with an F-35A, is a joint venture between the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos Defense to develop semi-autonomous drones that can work in concert with unmanned fighters. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; landscape and F-35 USAF
Photo Caption & Credits

Strategy & Policy

July 1, 2020

The Big Fighter Gamble

The Air Force bet big on the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program—and it should soon get the first indications of how those bets could pay off. 

“I hope to have the acquisition plan [for] NGAD rolling into the Digital Century Series this summer,” said Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper in June. The plan depends on a business-case analysis for the new airplane and on whether his digital approach to developing, building, fielding, and operating new aircraft will be more efficient than the traditional model. Secretive and already costing $1 billion per year, NGAD is intended to ensure U.S. air superiority in future conflicts. Senior Air Force leaders over the past 18 months had coyly avoided describing NGAD as a plane, indulging speculation that it could be a new kind of sensor network, an arsenal plane, attritable aircraft, or something else. Roper allowed that it is, in fact, an airplane, and that he’s waiting on an analysis to show that it can work as intended. 

The Digital Century Series idea is to design and develop new aircraft on computers, while simultaneously designing the factories that will build them. Computer-aided design is hardly new, but the Century Series concept goes further, creating virtual models that are, in effect, “digital twins” of the future machine. That eliminates physical models and prototypes and enables builders to produce production-relevant aircraft sooner.

The ultimate goal: Build and field 50 to 100 aircraft that are technologically superior to competitors, will be operated for a comparatively few years, and then replaced by a refined design or by entirely new aircraft. This, Roper said, is the only way to stay ahead of China and Russia, who don’t have to wait through multiple budget debates to launch and build new aircraft projects. 

The business-case analysis will determine whether Roper’s preferred method will actually cost less than the conventional process, which took 20 years each to develop and deliver the F-22 and F-35. There’s general agreement the Air Force can’t wait that long again, but Roper acknowledged skepticism over throwing out industry’s slow but proven methodology.

To “rewrite the book” on aircraft acquisition, he said, the NGAD team must compare the cost of the Century Series approach in terms of “effects per year,” rather than metrics such as cost per flying hour, which don’t necessarily translate to combat effectiveness.

He expects these new aircraft will be less costly to build because they will be intended to last just 10, rather than 30, years. That, in turn, should reduce sustainment costs, because USAF won’t have to invest in such a robust supply and maintenance train. This approach would eliminate “vanishing vendor” syndrome for parts and force a new, faster aircraft design-and-construction rhythm. At the same time, radical changes in cockpit design and aircraft operations would be constrained in order to reduce the need to tinker with the pilot training enterprise.

Changing the Calculus

Roper wants to demonstrate that the conventional process creates a unit cost tracked “year-by-year, via economies of scale,” while the new approach will deliver “greater return on investment for price-per-lethality, per year.” With the exception of the F-35 program, the full cost of sustainment has not typically been counted in the cost of a new system, and Roper expects that including that comparison will reveal that sustaining obsolescing systems is a very high and tradeable cost.

With NGAD, Air Force Acquisition chief Will Roper aims to “rewrite the book” on aircraft acquisition. Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo

This work is “very close” to being finished, Roper said.

If the analysis is favorable, it is “really going to help us” compete with China, Roper said. But even if the cost differential is close to break-even, the idea will pay off because the Air Force can field new aircraft more quickly for the same cost.

If, however, it turns out to be much more expensive, “then we’re going to have to argue that it’s a better return on investment, year by year.” But “my money’s on: It’s going to be cheaper,” he said.

Time is also a factor. Service leaders have consistently said they’ll need something new to deal with Russian and Chinese fifth-generation jets circa 2030. If NGAD craps out, conventional development will be too slow to make a difference. Based on recent history, new designs couldn’t be fielded until 2040, 10 years too late. 

ACC commander Gen. James Holmes says the future definition of “fighter” is an open question. Tech. Sgt. R.J. Biermann

The head of Air Combat Command, Gen. James M. Holmes, said earlier this year that ACC is working on a “fighter-like” capabilities roadmap, and that NGAD is central to it. He emphasized, though, that what constitutes a “fighter” is very much an open question now, and requirements vary from Europe—where Russia is only a short distance away—to the Pacific where an aircraft’s range is a premium consideration.

Fighters in the Pacific theater will probably look different than traditional fighters, he told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview. He said ACC is defining the “range and payload with avionics fusion and connectivity” that will be needed in combat in 2030.

Roper recently realigned the program executive officers managing advanced aircraft, putting Brig. Gen. (sel.) Dale White in charge of NGAD, the “Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Systems” project, and “Skyborg,” an effort to use artificial intelligence to make unmanned aircraft more autonomous. White will also oversee legacy aircraft such as the F-15, the new F-15EX, F-16, and A-10—but not the Air Force’s F-35A.

Reveal and Conceal

Future investment will be watched closely. The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2021 defense bill policy fenced 15 percent of the Air Force and Navy’s NGAD accounts until the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office completes an independent, “non-advocate” review. The committee wants CAPE to assess the risks to “cost, schedule, development, integration, production, fielding, and sustainment,” and to verify that NGAD will meet affordability goals and won’t “jeopardize or otherwise be detrimental to other high-priority future capabilities being developed and procured to support and execute other primary core competencies and missions.”

In June, the Air Force released requests for information to industry for both a potential successor to the MQ-9 and an “arsenal plane,” although the latter seemed to be oriented toward systems for dropping advanced munitions out the back end of cargo aircraft, rather than a new, stealthy penetrating system. It is unclear whether the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft, the “arsenal plane,” or a stealthy replacement for the MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drone will be part of the NGAD “family;” they could be, but neither Roper, nor others, have said so.

Gen. Timothy M. Ray, head of Global Strike Command, said in the spring that he is eying a “clean-sheet” design for an arsenal plane. That aircraft would also follow the rapid digital development model.  

In March testimony prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Holmes and Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said NGAD is very much part of a “family of capabilities enabling air dominance in the most challenging operational environments.” The fiscal 2021 budget request included $1 billion for NGAD and “$6.6 billion across” the Future Years Defense Program to replace “once-in-a-generation, mass-produced fighters with smaller batches of iteratively upgraded platforms of multiple types.” 

Using the Digital Century Series technique will permit the Air Force to troubleshoot “design, assembly, maintenance, and cost” before airplanes are ever built, eliminating the learning curve in both production and operation. The concept will be applied to non-fighter aircraft, munitions, and satellites, they said. To say more requires “a classified setting.”

Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, in a May interview with Air Force Magazine, said the secrecy surrounding NGAD and other top new programs is regrettable, but necessary, to avoid tipping the Air Force’s hand too early. He predicted that USAF’s overall scheme for air dominance will become clearer in about two years, as programs mature. 

The technologies in NGAD will “not only outfit a next generation of capability, but also, I believe, be retrofitted into some of our current platforms and weapon systems,” Goldfein said. This includes technologies to enable joint all-domain command and control, which will connect all the sensors, shooters, and command nodes among the services. 

“There are certain things that you connect to that are in the white, and there’s a growing number of things we will connect to in the black, and that’s probably as far as I can go,” he said. “What you are seeing from us is a ‘reveal and conceal’ strategy. We reveal at a time of our choosing, based on our deterrence objectives … . We reveal what we have, and we conceal what we have to keep our adversaries guessing.” Eventually, however, both for deterrence and to satisfy Congress’ need to understand the whole picture, USAF will have to put all its cards on the table.