and I facepalm
A specific new U.S. Air Force fighter designed and equipped to defeat theorized threats in the decades beyond 2030 is the popular vision for the final product of the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. As presented by the aerospace industry’s concept artists, the so-called sixth-generation fighter for the U.S. Air Force is often shown as a step beyond the
But that vision of NGAD may never come into existence.
A new concept for the project emerged from the Air Force’s top acquisition official at the Air Warfare Symposium on Feb. 28, and it calls for a radical break from conventional aircraft development programs.
Rather than spend the next decade developing a singular new air combat platform, the NGAD program may be shaped to establish a pipeline for acquiring, developing and fielding a host of new aircraft types, with a new design entering service perhaps as quickly as every two years. Instead of pinning all hopes on a single model, the alternative, if it works, would allow Air Force leaders to hedge against the risk of technology breakthroughs and to surprise enemies with unexpected new capabilities.
The new vision comes from a rare, extended monolog on the NGAD program’s future by Will Roper, an Oxford-trained string theory physicist who now is assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Although Pentagon and Air Force planners have been thoroughly analyzing requirements for future air dominance technology since 2015, Roper says the NGAD program is not ready to move beyond the realm of internal studies and into the acquisition phase. Despite a two-year study by the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team (ECCT), followed by an extended, two-year Analysis of Alternatives, Roper still is not satisfied that the Air Force has settled on the right strategy.
“I have a strong opinion that we need to not have it devolve into a traditional program,” Roper told reporters at the Air Force Association-sponsored symposium.
The acquisition process that Roper inherited starts with a highly detailed analysis of the operating environment, which, in the case of NGAD, is set to begin at least a decade into the future. The military’s operational planners then craft an intricate set of requirements for a future weapon system based on those analytical conclusions. But Roper calls that process “naive.”
“I think we have to accept that we cannot predict the 2030 threat,” he says. “That is the way the Cold War acquisition system works. It predicts the threat, then designs systems that beat them.”
The future presents too many variables to distill a set of coherent requirements from such uncertainty into a single aircraft design, he says. But the answer to that future problem, Roper believes, might be drawn from the Air Force’s past.
“Think back to the original Air Force, during the ‘century series’ of fighters,” Roper says. This reference to the string of second-generation, supersonic jet fighters introduced during the 1950s—the F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104 and F-105—recalls an age of continuous experimentation and innovation, albeit with a generation of combat aircraft boasting far less sophistication than, for example, a modern
“Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if we could create a new airplane or a new satellite every 3-4 years? Every two years?” Roper asks. “And you might do that not because you need it. It might be because you want to impose cost. You want to knock your opponent off their game plan.”
Cost imposition is a favorite topic for Roper, who came to the Air Force only a year ago. In the span of a decade, he has made the leap from academia to the highest ranks of the military bureaucracy. He started working directly with the military in 2010 as the acting chief architect for the Missile Defense Agency. Another trained physicist, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, appointed Roper to become the first director of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) in 2012, a post he held for five years.
“It was a big theme for me at SCO—cost imposition,” he says. “Show something to make your adversary think something different. Make them spend money. We used to have a 10-to-1 rubric. I’m going to spend $1 and force my opponent to spend $10. We need to start doing that in the Air Force. And next-generation air dominance may be just as much about imposing cost as it is about defeating [the enemy].”
The concept of breaking the military’s 20-year acquisition development cycle for advanced new weapons, such as fighter aircraft, is not necessarily original. But alternative approaches have a mixed record. The failure of the Army’s ambitiously sweeping Future Combat Systems program a decade ago serves as a frequently cited cautionary tale. The prospect of fielding a diverse and unpredictable fleet of combat aircraft also appears to present daunting logistical and sustainment challenges.
Roper acknowledges those concerns but also offers possible solutions.
The model for this potential vision of NGAD is not unlike the Missile Defense Agency’s highly integrated systems architecture, he says. As that agency’s acting chief architect for two years, Roper created a model he thinks is relevant to Air Force programs, such as NGAD and the Advanced Battle Management System. “That’s the inspiration. It worked,” Roper says.
In the example of missile defense, the system is composed of a sensor, an interceptor missile and a kill vehicle.
“All of them have to work together to kill the missile, [but] they’re all run by different programs,” Roper says. “So how do you buy a kill chain? Well, you start by working the radar. You tell them, work as hard as you can, do as good as you can. You tell the same to [those developing] the interceptor and the kill vehicle. But as they start working with industry, reality happens. Things are harder than you expect. And you are constantly trading the performance you are seeing with the mission[requirements]. And as someone does better than expected, you can let someone do worse than expected.”
The issue of sustainment costs for a diverse fleet of combat aircraft cannot be solved simply by imposing a new management system, but there are other options. Digital design tools may allow a diverse fleet of aircraft to share enough similarities that the sustainment cost is roughly comparable with that for a common fleet, he says. If that sounds like speculation, Roper concedes the point.
“I can’t prove to you that that’s true, but when we look at what digital engineering is doing for some of our programs, it might be true,” says Roper, without elaborating. “And because it might be true, we need to rethink our future not as a program, but as a pipeline of development with the ability to go into small production—or not.”
But it is also clear that this vision of NGAD is only one side of a raging debate within the Air Force. Using perhaps a rhetorical device to criticize the alternatives subtly, Roper names two alternate approaches, then offers a reason why each could be unsuccessful.
“Is the right way to go to make it a bunch of high-tech prototypes?” he asks. “So you push a lot of racehorses forward and hope one gets over the goal line, but you can’t afford to go into production on any of them. Or is it to take a bet on the best option? There’s only so much money in that program, so we cannot make it everything that we want.”
The F-35A achieved initial operational capability in 2016, 15 years after contract award. The Air Force now has less than 11 years to produce an NGAD capability against increasingly sophisticated threats. The urgency is real. In a 2017 essay published by the military affairs blog “War on the Rocks,” then-Brig. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, who had led the ECCT study on air superiority after 2030, described an environment in the relatively near future when the F-22 and F-35 would be unable to perform their roles inside defended airspace. Although a successor is needed, Roper insists on not rushing a decision.
“There are real choices to make about that program, and my comfort level will be based on how well the portfolio allows us to hedge for an uncertain future,” Roper said. “And hedging means not just defeating that uncertain future. It also means being able to impose cost and force others trying to shape the future, just like we are to force them to react to us.”