The U.S. Air Force acquisition office finished its acquisition strategy for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program last week, and the service is trying to build support for the program in the Pentagon for inclusion in the service’s FY ’22 budget plan, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said on Aug. 7.
“I’m very pleased with the results [of the acquisition strategy],” he told reporters. “The work I have to do now that I have the strategy is sell it here in the building. We’re ready to push the hammer down on NGAD. We’re ready to make it a program of record.”
Named for the service’s 1950s Century Series model of building aircraft, the Digital Century Series, which includes NGAD, 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.
Although the Air Force has yet to divulge the written NGAD acquisition strategy, it 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.
“The digital engineering it has demonstrated is magical,” Roper said of NGAD on Aug. 7. “We are ready to build airplanes like we did in the 70s but with today’s technology. Seeing that transformation in the automotive industry has made that industry more responsive, more technology inclusive, has made automobiles more reliable than they’ve ever been [and] gives me a ton of hope for military aviation. This technology, this digital engineering transformation is happening in military aviation before commercial aviation. For once, we’re ahead of our commercial counterparts, and we will be blazing the trail, and we’ll look forward to sharing with others.”
Earlier this summer, Roper said that he was waiting to see whether estimates for building aircraft under the new Digital Century Series model was cheaper or broke even with the service’s traditional acquisition process, as the service may spend more up front to contract with multiple vendors for aircraft designs but less on the back end, as the service would keep aircraft in the inventory significantly less than the 30 years or more that the Air Force now does.
It appears that the acquisition strategy will outline shorter lifespans for future fighter aircraft.
“When we use digital engineering, agile software and open architecture, you can play with the different colors of money in a total cost of ownership of a program,” Roper said. “Then you can let the research and development and procurement grow because you’re doing more research, you’re doing more procuring, you’re buying more airplanes, which is what an Air Force ought to do, but still make it cheaper than a traditional acquisition because you’ve lowered the modernization and sustainment so much over a traditional acquisition that the total cost of ownership is less.”
“When I completed the strategy, I didn’t just look at one Digital Century Series,” he said. “When I looked at all of them, every possible series that could be done, every combination of how quickly the spirals come out in terms of number of years and every possible combination of how long we keep the airplanes, there are two conclusions that leap off the page, that are undeniable: One is that digital engineering is the successor to stealth. It is to going to be the universal leavener that changes all programs in the face of future military power, and not just for air, but for space and for weapons and likely a lot of other fields. It is amazing what it provides.”
Roper said that digital engineering would improve system design and efficiency and the ability to spiral development cycles quickly.
“That may not make sense for every type of system we build, but for the forefront of our fighter force, keeping those systems new and relevant and modernized, means that rapid spiraling is exactly what you would value and that you can make that cheaper than buying one and only one type of airplane and maintaining it for a long period of time,” he said. “I will have a lot more details coming out on this as we move into AFA [Air Force Association symposium] next month. That will give me time to know whether or not this is likely to make our [FY] 22 budget, but this technology and this program give me hope that we can flip the script and finally get back to something that would feel more like the early Air Force, where a new platform coming out is not a generational thing, but something that happens every few years and gives our warfighters the advantage because of it.”
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.”