US Air Force (Air Force) Assistant Procurement Secretary Will Roper said that the Pentagon, under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, had designed, built, and flew a prototype of an X-plane at least once. The latter means, in particular, a new generation unmanned or manned aircraft, including a sixth-generation fighter. talks about what the procurement assistant had in mind. In the real world, we have already built and flew a full-scale flight demonstration model, and we have broken all records in this business. We are ready to start creating the next generation aircraft like never before, he said in an interview with Defense News Assistant Purchasing.
Roper noted that the development of the X-plane involved more than just the use of agile development methodology, open architecture, and digital engineering, as was the case with the US-Swedish eT-7 Red Hawk jet trainer, but something more. We strive for the most sophisticated systems ever built and have tested the full potential of this digital technology. In fact, we demonstrated something really magical added to the purchasing assistant.
Roper refused to name the number of X-aircraft prototypes built, its design features purpose, combat characteristics, in particular, speed and control mode with or without a pilot) as well as the lead developer of the product and the place where the first flight took place. However, the Procurement Assistant noted the importance of the test, as it proved the Air Force’s ability to use advanced technology to test digitally engineered products.
The United States is considering the issue of starting the production of the first products of the NGAD program, which in a broad sense, involves the creation of a family of unmanned and manned aerial vehicles of a new generation, controlled by a new stealth fighter. The latter should act as a connecting node with slave aircraft and a variety of multi-environment sensors, that is, it should represent a further development of the F-35 Lightning II concept. I don’t think it’s wise to build a single aircraft that should dominate all missions and in all cases all the time,” Roper said.
According to him, if the relevant program is approved by Congress, the Air Force plans to conclude contracts with several contractors for the annual purchase of 50-80 new fighters every eight years. This approach, dubbed the Digital Century Series (after the F-100-F-106 aircraft developed over a relatively short period of time), will increase development costs by 25 percent and production by 18 percent, but the total operating costs will be cut by half, and for modernization – by 79 percent at once. According to Roper, computer simulations and simulations of promising products before production and actual testing will involve the use of uniform standards by Air Force contractors. We cannot allow every industry partner to create their own [modeling and simulation] engine. We need to have the same rigorous digital design and assembly process as assembling the physical structure, says the purchasing assistant.
Judging by such statements, the American industry is indeed ready to produce new fighters. According to Roper, it is possible to launch the production of the corresponding products within the NGAD framework rather quickly, but before that, the Air Force needs to decide on the exact number and timing of the start of purchases of X-aircraft, which may, starting in fiscal 2022, affect the five-year defense budget plan, the expected parameters of which in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Pentagon believes it leaves much to be desired.
The NGAD, on which about a billion dollars was spent in the fiscal year 2020, can, on the one hand, radically shake up the US defense industry, and, on the other, threaten the planned volume of purchases of military equipment. It is believed that the NGAD program may involve, in addition to the traditional Pentagon contractors, new companies, in particular, even SpaceX, which can offer competitive prices for their own products, and advanced development methods used, for example, in the eT-7 Red Hawk program, will reduce the cost of programs like the F-15 Eagle by ten percent over their 30-year life cycle.
Popular Mechanics notes that NGAD ends up in an overflowing shopping basket.” The publication recalls that over the next ten years, the Air Force plans to purchase, develop or carry out upgrades under the programs F-35 Lightning II, F-15EX Advanced Eagle, B-21 Raider heavy strategic bomber, eT-7 Red Hawk, KC- 46 Pegasus, and a Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBM. How is the Air Force going to pay for everything? – asks the publication, assuming that NGAD will come out on top of this list.
Defense One in a publication dedicated to Roper’s statement writes that the new aircraft may not be the product of one of the defense giants like Boeing, Northrop Grumman, or Lockheed Martin. The publication reminds us that on July 18 applications were submitted for the Air Force competition for the creation of unmanned aerial vehicles for manned aircraft. There is evidence that the digital design tools that Roper touted are allowing smaller upstarts to enter markets that were once reserved only for certain contractors, writes Defense One.
Competition And Innovation
Roper’s surprise announcement is likely related to the Air Force’s hopes of getting sufficient budget funding, especially in the face of uncertainty caused by COVID-19. However, it makes sense to draw not military, but economic conclusions from it. As has been repeatedly stated, the current US development and production of new stealth fighters, strategic bombers, and pilotless drones is not a revolutionary innovation, but a high-tech routine. And, despite the presence of a limited number of large military-industrial companies, the United States continues to create competitive conditions for the emergence of new players on the market that can offer the Pentagon unconventional but effective solutions.
American competitors could draw attention to the fact that the relatively low cost of new drones of the NGAD program (based on their life cycle), in the management of which it is assumed the active use of artificial intelligence systems, indirectly indicates their increased lethality. On the other hand, according to Roper, the continuous development and production of fighters will provide the United States with a strategic advantage by placing countries like China and Russia in a state of technological uncertainty about the real US military capabilities.