The U.S. Air Force wants pilots and other operators to bring a significant voice to the development of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter and accompanying autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA).

Tim Grayson, special assistant to the Air Force and the former director of DARPA’s strategic technology office, told a Hudson Institute virtual forum on NGAD on June 2 that the classified program will use software as its backbone to allow the quick infusion of new technologies and that the Air Force is focused on involving operators in NGAD development, rather than dictating requirements.

Concept drawing of an Air Force NGAD platform from the April, 2021 U.S. Air Force Bi-Ennial Acquisition Report (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Each of the manned NGAD aircraft may cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said, while the CCAs operated by the manned NGAD would help lessen the program’s cost. Because of the extended range and mission payloads needed for CCAs, the latter would be significantly more expensive than other drones and would have about half the unit cost of the manned NGAD. Each manned NGAD would control up to five CCAs (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

Kendall told a Heritage Foundation forum on June 1 that NGAD has entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase to meet a goal of fielding systems in the next decade.

NGAD is to mark a sharp break from the traditional DoD requirements and acquisition process.

“We have a very rigorous, I might argue overrigorous, [requirements process] that makes the Statistics 101 fallacy of mistaking precision for accuracy,” Grayson told the Hudson Institute forum on June 2. “We love to study things to make sure that, first of all, we know exactly what the direct requirement is and then, in a very waterfall model, we pass that down to knowing exactly what system we want to design to satisfy that requirement. Then from there we flow down to everything from how we’re going to build it, test it, and how we’re going to use it. That’s our legacy model and one that’s been built up over decades.”

“Who can tell me precisely to six nines of precision exactly what the threat is going to be thirty years from now, and exactly what the opportunities are gonna be from a mission capability and technology [standpoint],” he said. “That’s the problem with the legacy model even though it was all well-intentioned. By making things operationally focused, first of all, we can capture a lot of the nuance. In our classic requirements process, we miss a lot of the details. English is a very imprecise means of communication, and it’s even more imprecise when you try to make it precise by throwing it into a 1,000-page requirements document.”

Instead, the NGAD model is to use the “near real time interplay between operators who understand the operational problem and capability developers who understand the state of what’s possible,” Grayson said. Under the NGAD model, the Air Force operator/technology developer conversations would lead to an improved understanding of how to field solutions to operational problems rapidly–within months.

“I’m not suggesting that, with NGAD, we’re gonna be re-designing airplanes on cycles, but by being able to bring details and the intuition, the understanding of the operator iteratively into that design process, we converge much faster on what’s really needed,” Grayson said.

Kendall has said that his top technology priority is “autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support.”

Retired Air Force Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, a senior adviser with the Roosevelt Group and the former head of Air Combat Command, told the Hudson Institute forum on June 2 that the Air Force should equip fighter squadrons with CCAs as soon as possible.

“My desire would be to get our hands on 24 or 48 nascent CCAs,” he said. “They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to meet the final requirements, but let’s get them and let operators start training with them, and then we’ll figure out and refine the requirements from there.”