A new report by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies recommends that the U.S. Air Force maintain at least two production lines for advanced fighters to ensure their rapid acquisition and fielding.
“The Air Force should strive to start new production of major weapon system types every five to seven years,” per the study, Building an Agile Force: The Imperative for Speed and Adaptation in the U.S. Aerospace Industrial Base. “This limits technological ambition by allowing technical evolution versus abrupt revolution, refreshes the aged fleet, and increases the opportunity to divest technological obsolescence and conduct technology insertion. Additionally, the Air Force should strive to maintain at least two simultaneous hot production lines of fighters and UAVs, while ensuring one bomber and one airlift line remains active.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and Heather Penney, a Mitchell Institute senior resident fellow, authored the study.
The report’s recommendation that the Air Force sustain multiple, hot production lines for fighters and drones “is the only viable solution for the Air Force, the defense aerospace industry, and our national security,” Penney during a May 18 during a Mitchell Institute Aerospace Nation forum. “The only way to bring down the high sustainment costs of the legacy fleet is to replace them, and the only way to begin transforming our force design is through production.”
“The best way to make that production affordable is through competition, and the best way to achieve diversity is through the different design approaches of different companies, and the only way to do all of this at speed is through multiple production lines,” she said. “Lack of competition is what has shaped the defense industry today where we have just a handful of consolidated companies who focus on integration and primarily on sustainment as their profit centers. This structure can’t deliver the force design of the future.”
In the 1950s, under the Century Series, the Air Force had multiple, concurrent fighter programs in development and production, and over a dozen active aircraft manufactures, the paper said. “This depth and redundancy enabled the Air Force to mitigate risk in one program by leveraging another,” per the study.
The ongoing tactical aircraft study by the U.S. Air Force, the Joint Staff, and the Pentagon office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation may offer a range of future fighter options for the Air Force to replace its F-16 fighters and neck down from the service’s seven current fighter types–the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-16, F-35A, and F-22 and the Boeing [BA] F-15C, F-15D, F-15E and A-10 (Defense Daily, May 12).
Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown said that the F-35A will be “the cornerstone” of the service’s future fighter fleet, which will include the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the Boeing F-15EX, the A-10, and a replacement for the F-16. A decision on an F-16 replacement is likely six to eight years away, Brown said.
The NGAD looks as if it will receive a significant funding boost in this year’s fiscal 2022 budget request, as the Air Force prioritizes necking down from the seven fighter types to five over the next decade.
The Air Force looks to reduce sustainment costs by up to 49 percent and modification costs by up to 81 percent in the Digital Century Series (DCS) of which NGAD is a part. The service has said that it could re-distribute that funding to gain a 39 percent increase in procurement dollars and a 14 percent gain in research and development dollars. The service also looks for DCS to halve the time between major fighter modifications from 11 years to six and to halve the average aircraft age in a 30-year procurement cycle from 16 years to eight.