The U.S. Air Force is developing two digitally engineered satellites–so-called “eSats”–and has flown a full-scale demonstrator of its Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, service acquisition chief Will Roper told the Air Force Association virtual Air, Space, and Cyber (vASC) conference on Sept. 15.

“Within the [U.S.] Space Force, we’re already working on the first two eSats, hoping to bring this technology into space,” he said.

“The full scale [NGAD] flight demonstrator has already flown…and it’s broken a lot of records in the doing,” Roper said. “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 this trend goes and hopefully see it end that vicious circle that we have been trapped in for so long.”

The Air Force declined to comment further on details of the eSat effort and the NGAD flight demonstration program after Roper’s address.

“The status of NGAD has been a well-guarded secret since its inception,” John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Air Force F-16 pilot, wrote in an email. The ‘broken a lot of records’ has many possible interpretations, but one of the most likely is that it has gone from concept to actual flight quicker than other demonstrators.”

In her kick-off address to AFA’s 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 (Defense Daily, Sept. 14). The plane will now be known as the eT-7A, though the service has said that an “e” designation may go away once a program moves into production.

E-systems could range from aircraft and drones to satellites and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

Digital engineering, as used in the commercial world, such as designing Formula One racing cars, has been a stated priority for Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper, as the service seeks to save time and money through end-to-end 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.

For years, DoD officials have lamented that sustainment of legacy systems robs modernization efforts.

“Right now, 70 percent of every dollar we spend is trapped in a part of acquisition where we have yeoman airmen and space professionals that keep legacy systems operating, but it consumes our budget,” Roper said. “It is such a big force that it limits our ability to create new and dominant things, and we’ve been stuck here since the Cold War.”

Roper likened his office to a “technology company we’re running in the Air Force and Space Force, but it’s a unique technology company that obeys different rules than the private sector.”

“One rule that we’re currently obeying is this vicious circle we’ve been trapped in especially in aircraft procurement since the late [19]70s,” he said. “We don’t compete things very often. It’s unusual for us to start a new program for a fighter, a bomber, or even a major weapon or a satellite. When the programs are so few and far between, they become must win events for industry. They put so much of their own money on the table so that they can win. In many cases, it’s existential that they do. Once they put their own money on the table, they have to get it back in sustainment so we get sustainment-dominant business cases.”

The result, Roper said, is sole-source modernization and “tail chasing threats.”

“We will not compete against nations like China and Russia, if we are trapped in this vicious circle,” Roper said. “We have to find a way to break it and create a new circle where most of our work is in design and production, building a cutting-edge military that can deal agilely with all the forces that could come to bear on the battlefield.”

The Air Force recently finished its NGAD acquisition strategy, 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 is part of the service’s Digital Century Services, named for the service’s 1950s Century Series model of building aircraft. The Digital Century Series is to encompass digital engineering, modular open systems architecture and agile software development.

NGAD would 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.

While the Air Force has not divulged the NGAD contractor or contractors, candidates include Lockheed Martin [LMT], Boeing, Northrop Grumman [NOC], General Atomics and Textron [TXT]. For the Air Force, NGAD would replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 and may see a carrier role for the U.S. Navy as a replacement for the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. DoD requested about $1 billion for NGAD in fiscal 2021

Venable said that digital engineering has been around for years and that an oversized Air Force research and development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) budget is a major culprit in not increasing the number of jets required for a 25 percent increase in squadrons up to the 386 called for in former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s 2018 “Air Force We Need” strategy.

The Air Force has “more than enough TOA (total obligational authority) to be fielding ‘the Air Force We Need’ without eliminating any program, but it is spending almost 50 percent more on RDT&E this year than it is on procurement,” Venable wrote. “Historically, RDT&E funding had never exceeded procurement until the previous chief of staff entered office.  And, since the end of the Cold War, every time the service gives up capacity for ‘future’ acquisitions, it is unable to field (even) the same level of capacity it had before it started shedding platforms.”

“The legacy platforms the service can genuinely afford to give up without hurting warfighting capacity are the Global Hawk, JSTARS and the bulk of the AWACS fleets,” Venable wrote. “None of those platforms can provide useful data to fighters/bombers at survivable ranges. The B-1, B-52, A-10 and the entire tanker fleets need to be sustained for ongoing operations (A-10s), and for the peer fight ahead until they are replaced on a one for one basis.”