Roper Reveals NGAD Has Flown, But Doesn’t Share Details

The Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance combat aircraft, intended to complement or succeed the F-22 and F-35 in the air superiority role, has already flown, having been rapidly prototyped through modern digital design, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper revealed Sept. 15.

Roper made the revelation at the end of a talk at AFA’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in which he said the Air Force is at an inflection point in how it will master future uncertainty. Making an analogy to the choice facing the main character in the movie “The Matrix,” the Air Force can “choose the red pill” and accept a new reality and new ways of buying the equipment it needs, or do things the old-fashioned way—taking the “blue pill”—and “lose,” Roper said. In the movie, the main character can choose to “wake up” from an elaborate illusion to a harsh reality, or continue in the illusion, which is comforting but false and self-defeating.   

He declined to give further details about the NGAD flights, except to say the aircraft has “broken a lot of records.” In a press conference after his presentation, Roper said he was able to win approval only to reveal the flights, without giving away program details or discussing the aircraft’s performance, in order to reassure stakeholders inside and outside the Air Force that digital engineering is producing “real things…in the real world.” He declined to say, for example, whether the aircraft was competitively developed, what companies were involved, or whether it will be produced in its present form.

“We don’t want the adversary to know” what the aircraft’s capabilities are, “or when they’ll show up,” Roper told reporters. But he feels it’s important to show that the process of doing things digitally “works.” He also discussed how the approach is affecting the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM.

The NGAD “right now is designing, assembling, testing, and, in the digital world, exploring things that would have cost us time and money to wait for physical world results,” Roper said in his speech. In the press conference, he said the paradigm has shifted, and now physical flying vehicles will verify and help refine highly detailed digital aircraft.

“The announcement isn’t that we just built an e-plane and have flown it a lot of times in a virtual world, which we’ve done. But we built a full-scale flight demonstrator and we flew it in the real world,” he told reporters.

In a later press conference, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown said he’s been “tracking” the development of NGAD since he was commander of Pacific Air Forces.

“It’s a full scale flight demonstrator,” he said, but he declined to predict “when it’s going to be a full-up program.” He echoed Roper’s comments, saying it’s an “e-series airplane,” using digital technology for design and production. However, “it’s less about the demonstrator, it’s more about how we … build airplanes faster, so we can be in a better place to compete” against China and Russia.

Brown later said that the NGAD will be assessed for “how it aligns with the current capabilities we do have” in the tactical aviation mix. Having the real-world demonstrator and actual performance to plug into wargames, and with “a dollar figure associated with it,” will allow USAF to make decisions about the design of the future combat air forces. It’s an analysis that will take place “over time, and it’s not just fighters” that will be scrutinized in this way, he said.

Roper also clarified service leader statements from Sept. 14 saying that platforms designed in a digital way will carry an “e” designation. Only the first two prototype T-7 aircraft will be called eT-7As, he said; the production version will still be called the T-7A.  

He’s encountered people who have pushed back on the idea of the digital approach, questioning “what you can digitally engineer.”

“I’ve had many people in the Pentagon and elsewhere say, ‘I see how you could apply that approach to a trainer like T-7, but you could not build a cutting-edge warfighting system that way.’ And I’ve had to listen to that and nod my head and say, ‘well, you may be right,’” all the while knowing that the NGAD was actually flying.

“My hope is to create greater credibility in the process, at least from my own team,” who are not “read-in” on NGAD, so “they will know to get smart on this technology.”

“We’re going to train on it, drill on it until this is the way we do business,” he told reporters. “Every new program will begin as an e-system because not only are you lowering our risk, but you’re going to give us life-cycle benefits before we ever pay that physical-world tax, which is a big step to take.” He also wants industry “to start leaning forward with us, and make their own investment” in the digital technology.

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

That cycle, he said, it one that compels the Air Force to spend 70 percent of its money on sustaining old things instead of buying new ones that can better adapt to changing combat technologies. He seeks to “flip that,” and spend only 30 percent on sustainment; abandoning platforms after about 15 years in order to press on with new, more relevant gear. He said that doing so will mean there’s enough money to keep buying new instead of sustaining the old.

He also reasserted previous comments that USAF will work to make the new model profitable, so companies don’t have to bet themselves on “must win” competitions and hope to recover their investment in production and sustainment.

The shift is necessary because the Pentagon only accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s investment in research and development; an inversion of the 80 percent it commanded decades ago, Roper explained. The commercial world is where technology is most rapidly advancing, he said, so the Defense Department and Air Force must be able to draw on it, and at the speed it advances.

“If all we do” is concentrate on that 20 percent, “we are not going to win,” Roper said.

Other “blue pill/red pill” choices involve continuing to manage the force at human speed or shifting to artificial intelligence-enabled decision making with “machine-learning” speed, he said.

Roper flagged the Sept. 3 Advanced Battle Management System experiment as potentially a “watershed moment” in history, demonstrating a relatively low-cost air base defense system’s ability to shoot down live-fly simulated cruise missiles with rounds fired from an artillery piece and a tank. The feat, which he credited as a joint effort of the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, will have lasting effect on future strategy and concepts of operations, he insisted. It would not have been possible without cloud-based data and AI assistance.

Roper also claimed success in investment with small businesses and startups, partnering companies with innovative technologies with the capital needed to develop them into things the Air Force needs, touting an increase from tens of million to billions of investment in less than a year.

The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent contract awarded to Northrop Grumman last week reflects the new model, he told reporters. The $13 billion contract was far less than the expected $25 billion award. Roper explained that it used to be “common” to “tie EMD (engineering and manufacturing development) to early production. I’m generally not a fan of that,” saying there are cautionary tales where early production lots incentivized industry to “buy in at significant losses…and you know what happens when industry buys in. All sorts of bad things happen,” compelling companies to make their money back in production and sustainment.

“The reason we have pivoted to doing the EMD award separate from the production lots is really tied to digital engineering itself,” he said. We had God-like insight in all things GBSD; we have had that inside since TMRR,” or the technical maturation and risk reduction phase, “where we required both vendors to be in the same digital engineering environment as the government team.” It provides new insight and “helps you evaluate proposals … there’s no place to hide. Because you have a digital representation of the entire system and its life cycle.”

The difference now is that “this is not really digital engineering, it’s digital acquisition.”

On this program, “we will go into production with actual cost and pricing, and we will still have our God-like insights as we get into negotiations.”