In her kick-off address to the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space, and Cyber (vASC) conference on Sept. 14, U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett named the Boeing [BA] and Saab Red Hawk training aircraft as the first system to carry the “e” prefix designating digitally engineered systems.
Digital engineering has been a stated priority for Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper, as the service seeks to save time and money through computer testing before bending metal and as the service seeks to expand its industrial supply base beyond a handful of well-established primes to start-up companies as well.
E-systems could range from aircraft and drones to satellites and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
“For 73 years, the entire history of the Air Force, X-planes have represented technological innovation,” Barrett said. “Today, the e-plane and e-sat will join them in making history and ensuring airmen and space professionals have modern tools to protect our nation.”
The eT-7A Red Hawk has apparently already seen production gains from digital engineering. Leeanne Caret, the CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said that the mating of the forward and aft fuselages of the Red Hawk only takes 15 minutes, versus 24 hours for the Boeing F/A-18 fighter for the U.S. Navy.
The Sweden-based Saab began production of eT-7A aft fuselages on Jan. 10 to be sent to Boeing’s St. Louis factory for final assembly.
In 2018, Boeing and Saab won a potentially $9.4 billion Air Force contract for 46 simulators and 351 aircraft, which are expected to replace the service’s aging T-38 Talon fleet. Once the $813 million engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase is complete, Saab will transfer its manufacturing to a new factory in West Lafayette, Indiana, to promote U.S.-based production for the Red Hawk.
Named for the service’s 1950s Century Series model of building aircraft, the Digital Century Series, which includes the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, is to encompass digital engineering, modular open systems architecture and agile software development.
Digital engineering uses simulations and 3D models to shorten design times and manage platform life cycles.
The U.S. Air Force acquisition office finished its acquisition strategy for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program last month, and the service is trying to build support for the program in the Pentagon for inclusion in the service’s FY ’22 budget plan (Defense Daily, Aug. 11).
NGAD will likely have multiple companies simultaneously developing new fighter aircraft using what current technologies are available. The Air Force would then downselect to a single vendor and procure a small number of fighter jets before going back to the drawing board in as little as five years.
It appears that the acquisition strategy will outline shorter lifespans for future fighter aircraft and other systems.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown acknowledged as much in his address to vASC on Sept. 14 following Barrett’s address. Brown is pushing the Air Force to field new capabilities quickly, as he tries to establish “accelerate change or lose” ideas throughout the service.
Last year, the Air Force established a program executive office (PEO) for advanced aircraft that would include NGAD as one of its priorities.
Crafting a sound business case for NGAD and the Digital Century Series will likely be critical to receiving support from lawmakers. The Government Accountability Office and several senators have already criticized the Air Force for a “lack of business case” for another major priority, the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).
Service officials acknowledged last year that they needed to put more effort into educating lawmakers about NGAD as the concept is fleshed out. The Air Force requested more than $1 billion in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funds for NGAD in the fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request. Congress appropriated $905 million in the FY ’20 defense bill.
On the House side, the Air Force is likely to have to put in more effort, as the House Appropriations Committee recommended about $537.6 million for NGAD in the committee’s fiscal 2021 defense bill–a $506.5 million reduction to the budget request.
House appropriators said that that $506.5 million was needed “to fund [a] near term fighter recap shortfall.”