From a journalistic perspective, covering the F-35 program can be a bit of a quagmire at times. The aircraft is undoubtedly among the most advanced and capable air platforms ever to take to the sky, but the plane’s development has also been a clinic in poor planning, over-spending, and the inherent flaws in putting an air frame into production before it has completed testing. Coverage of America’s top stealth fighter, as a result, can sometimes seem almost schizophrenic — with one piece championing the maturing technologies that make the F-35 special abutting the next decrying the program’s financial woes — as all three branches operating the platform struggle to find ways to manage the new plane’s extremely high operational costs now that they’re finally entering the fight.
Where the F-35 program went wrong is the subject of ongoing debate, but many contend that it was the effort to make a single jet that could do everything asked of it by three different branches of the Armed Forces that sent the program’s cost skyrocketing. Take that idea and add to it the concept that the F-35 needs to be equipped to win on an as-yet unseen battlefield fifty years from now, and you begin to understand just how daunting Lockheed Martin’s challenge was when developing this platform. In effect, they were asked to predict the future, and then build a bird that could dominate it while answering to three different branches regarding the specifics of how.
This approach is perhaps the epitome of America’s turn toward technological dominance over the battlefield, in contrast to its World War II posture of dominance through overwhelming force. At the end of the last global war, America had around 300,000 combat aircraft in its various fleets. Today, that number has dwindled to just 13,400 — but thanks to advancing technology, that comparably small figure can fight well above its weight class. Nonetheless, America’s shift toward tech over volume has resulted in a dramatic slowing of new platforms entering the fight. Today, the vast majority of combat aircraft employed by the U.S. are legacy platforms designed and built decades ago — often continuing to serve well beyond their intended lifespans.
But the Air Force has a revolutionary new plan to change all that: by scrapping the modern approach to fighter acquisition and instead focusing on rapid development and acquisition in relatively small batches of air frames. That sounds simple, but that one sentence represents a massive change in how America intends to fight its airborne wars.
On October 1, the Air Force is scrapping its Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) program (which was to be America’s next slow-burn development fighter intended to serve as an F-22/F-15 replacement in much the same way the F-35 was largely built to fill the role F-16 and F/A-18s currently fill). The PCA program was intended to take a while to develop, with plans to start fielding the new jet sometime in the 2030s and leveraging that time to develop and perfect new technologies that have yet to be seen on the battlefield. Of course, anyone that’s followed the F-35 program for a while may be developing an eye twitch as they read this, because it’s hard to deny that the PCA program sounds like it has the potential to be another lofty program that takes twenty years to enter combat while smashing through budgets along the way.
The Air Force’s acquisition executive, Will Roper, seems to think so too, so the soon-to-be defunct PCA program will be replaced by a new fighter acquisition program known as Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD. The new approach comes with more than a revamped name; however, it actually represents a fundamental shift in acquisition strategy. Instead of slowly developing a single new air frame and then ordering gobs of them, Roper intends to put the industry into competition with one another in order to rapidly develop the most potent platforms they can with the intention of producing smaller batches with shorter expected lifespans. Instead of ordering thousands of F-35s to be delivered over the span of decades, the NGAD program could potentially see fighters entering service like car models, with new platforms hitting the service just a few years apart and offering all new amenities (or combat technologies).
“Based on what industry thinks they can do and what my team will tell me, we will need to set a cadence of how fast we think we build a new airplane from scratch. Right now, my estimate is five years. I may be wrong,” Roper said. “I’m hoping we can get faster than that — I think that will be insufficient in the long term [to meet future threats] — but five years is so much better than where we are now with normal acquisition.”
Roper’s plan is to rapidly develop aircraft using state of the art software to not only manage design, but logistics and production as well. This shift will allow companies to make bids on contracts with a solid understanding of not only how long it will take to build the aircraft, but how much it will cost to operate thereafter. All entries will be expected to meet the program’s requirements for interoperability and open architecture, making all jets members of the same “family,” even if produced by different manufacturers.
“You could start learning so much before you ever bent the first piece of metal and turned the first wrench, so that when you did do it for the first time, you already have learned. You’re already up to a level of proficiency that in the past you would have to be in the 100th aircraft to have,” he said. “And then if you kept going and you modeled the maintenance, then you could go after the part of the life cycle that constitutes the 70 percent of what we pay.”
Contract winners would produce batches of the new aircraft (24 or so per year and 72 per contract), and as those batches went into production, the contest would begin anew. Instead of slowly fielding thousands of the same platform then, Roper believes America could field multiple variants with specific technological additions each year — leaving the enemy left to guess what capabilities inbound fighters may have and making it far more difficult to mitigate America’s air power through strategy. These planes would be built to survive maybe 6,000 flight hours instead of 20,000 as is expected of new F-35s and F-15EXs — and continued production of new platforms would allow for that without creating holes in America’s air defenses.
“That opens up the opportunities to do things very differently, different structural designs, not doing full-scale fatigue testing and all of things we do on the geriatric Air Force to keep things flying,” he said. “Where is the sweet spot where we are keeping airplanes long enough to make a real difference but not so long that we’re paying a premium to sustain them or not able to refresh them with better aircraft?”
Of course, the Air Force may think this is the best path forward, but it will be up to lawmakers to fund the shift. Roper says he’s received some positive feedback from members of Congress, but the branch will have its work cut out for as it pursues the capital it needs to fund this change.