Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper is trying to build the case for frequent, spiral development of the Digital Century Series (DCS) of aircraft–among them the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter–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.

“I’m having discussions with Pentagon leadership trying to determine will we push the accelerator and if so how much and then I can turn that into the unit cost and that will start the discussion with the Pentagon, with the Hill and others on, ‘Are you really willing to have those sticker prices go up, if your total cost of ownership comes down?'” Roper told reporters on Sept. 23. “I pray the answer is yes because we’re not going to be the kind of Air Force we need to be, if most of our money is in geriatrics.”

The U.S. Air Force acquisition office finished its acquisition strategy for NGAD in late July, and Roper told the Air Force Association virtual Air, Space, and Cyber conference this month that the service has already flown a full-scale NGAD demonstrator.

The Air Force has been working on a business case to support a novel method to develop next-generation fighter jets more quickly and efficiently (Defense Daily, June 9).

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.

Digital engineering uses simulations and 3D models to shorten design times and manage platform life cycles.

“You can do a traditional aircraft buy…[and] use digital engineering to get your direct and indirect labor costs out, do simple assembly, do a 30-year aircraft mass production purchase and modernize and sustain that aircraft until you retire it,” Roper said on Sept. 23. “If you do that kind of profile, it’s very modernization and sustainment heavy. You can also use digital engineering to flip it the other way. You can do smaller lots and give up economic order quantities, but you can spiral more frequently. Because you’re not doing large procurement lots, you can afford those spirals, and you can also afford to not keep the airplane for 30 years. And that frees up the massive amounts of money that we spend in modernization and sustainment but that very few people report about and that very few [congressional] hearings are held on.”

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 (Defense Daily, Sept. 14).

Digital engineering has been a stated priority for 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).

A 19-page paper by Roper on Sept. 15 presents a possible scenario for buying the DCS aircraft in five lots of 75 every 8 years–a total of 375 aircraft over 40 years. The 8 years would be more akin to the 1970s in which 10 companies built fighters in four-year “innovation cycles,” versus the three fighter companies today that take several decades to build a fighter.

“The 150 primary aircraft available is about as low as you can go,” Roper said of the DCS estimate in his paper. “That is not the optimal way to buy aircraft. It’s meant to show what is the entry level for having a possible business case for industry as well as the number of aircraft that close for our operators.”

“If you don’t give Air Combat Command a wing of aircraft with all of the spares, replacements and training aircraft needed, it’s not actually a real combat capability,” he said. “Just like quantum physics, there’s a quantum unit of air power for the command, and those lots of 75 ended up being a really good place to enter the equation, and if you want to buy more airplanes than that, then the math gets better for us.”

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.