The US Congressional Research Service (CRS) has helped lift the lid on one of the US Air Force’s secretive programs – the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter program. Recently revealed by Dr William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the program looks to be much closer to fruition than originally thought.
With the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31, it is no secret that the US has been secretly working away on a suite of programs designed to replace both the ageing F-15 Eagle airframe and the venerable F-22 Raptor with a next-generation platform, designed purely for one thing: air dominance.
While the US has committed to plans to maintain fleets of fifth-generation combat aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 and has recently announced the acquisition of the advanced, new-build F-15EX variant to serve as the backbone for much of the continental US-based air national guard wings, it is the rapid evolution of potential adversaries' fifth-generation air combat capabilities that has prompted a paradigm shift in US fighter development and acquisition.
In response, the 2016 'Air Superiority 2030' study conducted by the US Air Force sought to identify the capabilities of the 'Next Generation Tactical Aircraft' air superiority/dominance fighter jet expected to enter service in the 2030s. As part of this identification process, the US Air Force identified a suite of capabilities needed to survive in the increasingly complex future air combat environment.
"The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next-generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems (IADS), passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time frame," the US Air Force solicitation stated.
Recognising this, and in an announcement that surprised much of the Defence, defence industry and strategic policy communities, Dr William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, recently revealed that the US Air Force had not only prototyped the aircraft, it has flown at least one aircraft as well.
This development comes years ahead of schedule and marks a major paradigm shift in the US Air Force's research, development and acquisition process following teething problems with the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Dr Roper explained, "We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before."
This push to rapidly develop the successor to the highly capable, yet limited number of F-22 Raptors, also known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform, has reached a critical juncture, as the USAF is expected to deliver its final business case by the end of the year.
Shifting from the concepts established in the US Air Force's 'Air Superiority 2030' plan, it is proposed that the future fighter would rapidly prototype technologies with a focus on maturing them for inclusion in an advanced aircraft to be fielded in the early 2030s.
This shift is something highlighted by Dr Roper: "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, 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."
However despite this unprecedented progress for an incredibly complex and challenging program, little is known about the NGAD platform, including the as yet to be revealed successful company and design, in response the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) has provided an 'In Focus' report with the aim of hopefully revealing a little more about the future aircraft.
Clarifying the 'air dominance' role
The concept of 'air dominance' is one that elicits imagery of grand, World War Two-style dog fighting against pitched opponents, however, while that possibility remains relevant, both the CRS and US Air Force aren't so sure that what is delivered under the NGAD program would constitute a "traditional fighter" aircraft.
Explaining this, the CRS report establishes that the objective of the NGAD program is to deliver a platform capable of establishing and maintaining 'air dominance' in a contested and heavily defended battlespace, however delivering a platform capable of that seems to be open to a little creative interpretation.
"NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and/or a number of complementary systems – manned, unmanned, optionally manned, cyber, electronic forms that would not resemble the traditional 'fighter'. For example, a larger aircraft the size of a B-21 may not manoeuvre like a fighter," the CRS report explains.
"But that large an aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon, with multiple engines making substantial electrical power for that weapon, could ensure that no enemy flies in a large amount of airspace. That is air dominance. There appears little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to outturn another plane – or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft."
It should be recognised, however, that this over dependence upon high-technology 'solutions' at the expense of traditional fighter characteristics and capabilities leaves the platform at the mercy of potential adversaries that continue to develop and field traditional 'fighter' aircraft as was disastrously demonstrated during the Vietnam War, which saw American and allied multi-role fighter aircraft, dependent on beyond visual range, infrared and heat seeking missiles, fall prey to agile, fast Soviet-built air superiority aircraft.
Leaving others in their wake
Achieving this will require a focus on three key areas, namely: agile software development – a process by which programmers quickly develop, test and implement code, soliciting feedback from users throughout the process; open systems architecture – enabling a great degree of plug-and-play functionality; and finally, digital engineering – including 3D modelling across the entire program to support lower costs, manufacturing and sustainment programs.
Dr Roper recently expanded on the aforementioned details, telling Defense News, "I hope to have the acquisition plan for NGAD rolling into the Digital Century Series this summer. I don’t want to go more specific than that and timeline and drumbeat for the team, because I have given them an unprecedented task."
Expanding on this, he added, "How long we keep the aircraft is one of the variables that they are weighing [as part of the business case]. How many years make sense? It’s clearly not two, three, four, five, but we don’t want it to be 30 either. So, they’re looking at that.
"They’re looking at the amount of modernisation that would be expected — what we would expect that to cost and if it gets easier with digital tools. And then summing it all up to see whether the cost of having a lethal airplane per year is less than for the Digital Century Series model than for the traditional."
Adding to this, Dr Roper explains the focus of the NGAD program, saying, "If it is, that is going to really help us, I hope, because we’ll show that data and argue that it is not just better from a ‘competing with China and lethality’ standpoint. It’s just better from a business standpoint.
"If it breaks even or is less [than traditional methods], I will be exceptionally happy. If it’s more expensive — and I hope not exceptionally more — then we’re going to have to argue on behalf of the program."
Supporting Dr Roper's push for the Digital Century Series, the CRS report states: "Ultimately, that vision could result in firms specializing in design that pass their designs to high-tech manufacturing centres capable of producing anything sent to them in digital form, rather than maintaining dedicated airplane factories. Companies with global logistics chains could be tasked with the sustainment mission.
"This reallocation of roles could open Air Force programs to firms that are not traditional military aviation primes. This concept complements the Air Force’s other goal, to move from long programs to short runs of different aircraft, theoretically made possible and economical by flexible production lines. This might lower sustainment costs because they would be replaced by newer designs rather than being kept in service for long periods. This effort is often referred to as the 'Digital Century Series', referring to simultaneous Air Force development programs of the 1950s and '60s."
Still a little to be worked out
Despite the CRS report positing the possibility of the NGAD resulting in a platform akin to the size of the B-21 Raider currently under development and reportedly entering the early stages of production with Northrop Grumman, the CRS report is clear in identifying that NGAD is aimed at succeeding the mission currently conducted by both the F-22 Raptor and the F-15EX, raising the question: what exactly are we going to see and, more importantly for Australia, can we get our hands on the platform to complement our fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters?
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep – combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and, more broadly, the European Union – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of a highly capable, high-speed, low-observable, air superiority-focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the RAAF and allied air forces?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid-2030s.