As the U.S. Air Force briefs Pentagon officials and congressional members on the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the initiative’s classified details may be the special sauce that gives the program traction, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said on Nov. 24.

“I feel like we generally moved the ball quite a bit this year on the acquisition strategy both inside the building and outside the building,” Roper told reporters in a virtual question and answer session. “There’s general enthusiasm for using digital engineering–cautious optimism that it might break the aircraft procurement curve, meaning not taking forever to develop and forever to test, at least enough optimism to allow us to try it. I think NGAD, as [for] any future program, there’s always a potential target for marks because it is the future and it’s not currently in operations. But I felt like our reviews on both sides of Congress went really well and we were able to go into the details of digital engineering.”

Air Force Acquisition Chief Will Roper (U.S. Air Force Photo)

As the Biden transition team moves to get briefings on DoD programs, the Air Force and other military services have been building their program objective memoranda (POMs), and NGAD looks to feature prominently in the Air Force’s submission.

Asked what evidence the Air Force could provide to Congress to help move NGAD along, Roper replied, “It’s the classified capabilities, the classified progress that helps.”

While “NGAD has not stopped at all” during the pandemic, and other classified programs also continue apace, “during COVID-19, classified discussions are very difficult to do,” Roper said. “That’s something we should be mindful of.”

At the Air Force Association (AFA) virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference (vASC) in September, Roper revealed that the full scale NGAD flight demonstrator “has already flown…and it’s broken a lot of records in the doing.” (Defense Daily, Sept. 15).

Roper is trying to build the case for frequent, spiral development of the Digital Century Series (DCS) of aircraft–among them NGAD–in preparation for the release of the fiscal 2022 budget in the first quarter of next year.

That effort is part of Roper’s goal to shift billions of dollars from the decades-long sustainment of legacy systems–what Roper terms “geriatrics”–to research and development and procurement of cutting edge systems that the Air Force may frequently replace or upgrade.