Podcast: The Race To Replace The F-22 Raptor Begins

The U.S. Air Force plans to award a contract for a fighter aircraft to replace the F-22 Raptor in 2024. Aviation Week editors discuss how the service got to this point, and where the competition might be headed.

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Rush Transcript

Jen DiMascio:  Hello and welcome to the Check 6 podcast. Last week, the U.S. Air Force released a classified solicitation to industry for an engineering and management development contract for the service's next generation air dominance program. Launching in earnest, probably a three-way competition or a sixth generation fighter to replace the F-22. I'm Jen DiMascio, the Executive Editor for Defense and Space. I'm here with Senior Military Analyst, Matt Jouppi, Defense Editor Steve Trimble and Pentagon Editor Brian Everstine. Brian, you reported the news last week. What is the U.S. Air Force looking for?

Brian Everstine:  Yeah, it was a surprise, very short, pretty terse press release to announce that the Air Force had released this classified solicitation to industry. And it's looking for a down select for an EMD contract in 2024, putting a timeline on when we can look ahead for a down selection from the three anticipated competitors. We have Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are expected to compete for this sixth generation fighter to replace the Air Force's F-22. And as I mentioned, yeah, it's very classified. The Air Force isn't really talking that much about it. We do know that they're looking for about a fleet of about 200 fighters to replace the F-22, we're looking at a price of about $300 million a copy, multiple hundreds of millions of copies but Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said in some testimony, that the timing is interesting because there's been a little bit of confusion on where the [Next-Generation Air Dominance] program stands.

We had Secretary Kendall saying last year that it was already colloquially in [engineering and management development], which I don't think any of us really knows what that means, and he had to walk it back. But the thing that it had kind of built on the maturity of some other DARPA programs that leading into the future fighter. So we have this solicitation that came out in a press release and then kind of wait and see what the Air Force is going to want to announce going down the road. And this comes as the Air Force is also looking at some other different ways to look about its future fighter infrastructure, looking at what they call collaborative combat aircraft to really beef up the fleet size of its fighters. Secretary Kendall said about months ago, they're looking at about a thousand of these by two each with F 35 s and the end ga. So now we're just going to see what comes out after this press release.

Jen DiMascio:  Thanks, Brian. Steve, did you have a little to add to that?

Steve Trimble:  Yeah, well so much, really this is what we sort of live for at Aviation Week on the military beat -- a chance to write about a new fighter that's finally doing something beyond what they say. It's actually coming to fruition. Feels like we've been writing about it for over a decade and now finally there actually might be a contract award for it. So it's very exciting. One thing that kind of particularly struck me just based on some statements, I guess Secretary Kendall, Frank Kendall appeared this morning a defense writer's group and said it was going to be a winner take all or said they're going to select one aircraft in 2024, which would set up a winner take all type competition just like we saw in F-22 and F-35 and B-21 for that matter.

But there may be an interesting wrinkle in this, I don't know, has kind of gone under the radar a little bit and that's that Frank Kendall has also said sort of repeatedly over the last couple of months to even if they're only going to select one design that they want to preserve the ability to continuously compete the airframe. And it's not exactly clear what that means. Obviously if they're only going to pick one design, they'll just have one option to choose from. And then maybe they have different companies that would be competing each year to supply a certain portion of the airframes that would be designed by the prime contractor.

So in that way the airframe is like a line replaceable unit that is just integrated by the lead system integrator or prime contractor. I'm not sure that's some speculation on our part because we don't really know the details of that level, but there does seem to be this interesting little wrinkle in how this competition will actually get executed after the EMD award for something that we normally just assume goes to the prime contractor, which is building the airframe that they've just designed, that there is some heritage in the digital Century Series business case that will roper when he was assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics came forward with, it's not the full digital century series approach that was in roper's vision, but that is an element of it. He did want to break away airframe production from the designer in order to keep that competition. So maybe that's actually happened here or is going to happen, but again, still pretty light on details at this point.

Jen DiMascio:  Well Matt, you've really studied the Air Force's competition for the F-22 Raptor, the predecessor aircraft. What lessons might be relevant to this current competition?

Matt Jouppi:  I think the first thing to take away from the Raptor and the process of developing the fifth generation capabilities in the first place is really the requirements process and the generation of the concept of operations, the con-ops. So I think with NGAD, there's a lot of temptation just immediately be driven towards what are the technologies, what is the defining traits of six gen? But I think in order to have that conversation, you have to first look at what is the capability need the service is trying to fulfill. That is how the [Joint Requirements Oversight Council] process works, is that there's first identified a capability gap. And with the F-22, the service defined for [Advanced Tactical Fighter] was they really needed an asset to be an offensive counterair platform that would penetrate the Soviet integrated air defense system day one to take out hostile fighter aircraft from bases in Central England, taking off with enough range and also take out Soviet Airborne Early Warning and Control platforms.

And by doing that, it would enable the whole other spectrum of Air Force assets to operate. It would allow JSTARS to target Soviet advanced armor formations that would facilitate F-15 Es, taking them out, performing interdiction missions. It would also hopefully make the skies a little bit safer for F-117 tacked as a silver bullet force. And so Raptor wasn't just this having a new fighter, it was this very specific niche capability to enable the whole menu of Air Force platforms to exist. So I think when we look at NGAD now, it's important to think of what is the mission need for China and the Asia-Pacific. And I still think if you look at some of the earlier phrasing, which I'm sure SIVIL took a look at the penetrating at counterair kind of framing from this, I think you could take that mission from Raptor that they still need a platform that can penetrate the offensive counterair mission day one in hostile airspace with VHF radars, et cetera.

And another kind of interesting takeaway from the Raptor saga was for so many competitions, again, I think there's this focus on the technical platform itself, whereas with ATF, I think there was a lot of actual emphasis placed on prime contractor ship ability. So with Northrop, B2 was a huge headache for them. There was a lot of cost overruns, some concerns about the stealth technology at the time, whereas Lockheed's F-117 recently had an amazing performance in Desert Storm. There was also from interviews from program officials at the time that characterized Northrop as being a engineering company with some program managers versus Lockheed was kind of more described as a company with a lot of program managers kind of more running the show. And the government ultimately decided that Lockheed had less risk for their design from a program management perspective, and this was kind of key to them winning the bid. So I think that's another important thing when framing NGAD is not only about the technical platform, there is a business case, there is a proposal.

Jen DiMascio:  Well, also looking back at the genesis of the NGAD program, the Air Force has been talking about this idea of a family of systems for, I don't know, about a decade or more. Steve, how did that all begin and how does this fit into the services vision for that family of systems?

Steve Trimble:  So again, we're reading from sparse notes in the unclassified domain, mostly unclassified domain about this topic and this program. But what's really clear is that the Air Force is trying to reinvent the fighter with NGAD, I mean, in a way, each new fighter is kind of a reinvention of the old, but a real fundamental break is happening here where they're really for the first time since the Cold War ended, they're not trying to integrate the entire ability to complete the kill chain on a single platform. So F-22 and F-35 are fielded with all of the systems, weapons, sensors, data links for those aircraft to independently complete a kill chain. And that may not necessarily be the case with NGAD. This starts going back to the initial studies. It was called the Air Dominance Initiative by DARPA in 2010 to define what the next fighter after the F-22, which had only entered service in 2005 at that point, what that was going to look like, what it would need.

And they recommended this family of systems approach for the next generation of our dominance program that was seconded by another Air Force level analysis a couple years later. Finally, things started moving to the prototype stage by 2015, 2016 when Frank Kendall, who was at that time under Secretary Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, got some funding for the Aerospace Innovation Initiative that was going to be a DARPA led program involving both the Air Force and the Navy to develop prototypes of next generation fighters to develop them and fly them. That program got started in the 2016 budget. There was an office set up within DARPA that still exists. DARPA sets up a program office, the aerospace projects office to manage this program to build prototypes. We know that an NGAD flight demonstrator had flown by September of 2021 when Will Roper, again, announced that at AFA.

Now it may have been well before September of 2021 when that first flight happened, and we don't know how many aircraft actually flew. But in the meantime, the Air Force took those studies from the Air Dominance initiative and they refined them through this additional series of studies called the Air Superiority Flight Plan by the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team led by Brigadier General Grynkewich, who's now a major general. They're really sort of getting their heads around this new issue where China has become the pacing threat and the Pacific has become the geographic domain rather than Russia and Europe. And that changes how you look at the fighter, right? And it changes the way you look at air dominance. It's a much bigger theater. That means you have to fly much longer distances in order to do any mission compared to what you would see in Europe. That means you have a larger aircraft.

A larger aircraft means it's more expensive because aircraft cost is still determined or estimated by weight, which is why you're getting these estimates of $300 million a copy versus what it was 120 million or so for the F-22, you're building in a lot more space in that aircraft to carry the fuel it needs to do this mission. And meanwhile, China's capabilities have also increased significantly during this time period. This is when we first saw the J-20 integrated with the PL-15 long range air-to-air missile, and we've heard from many US Air Force officials since then that this eroded or eliminated the F-22s advantage with look first and shoot first. Now that Advantage had gone to the J-20, at least until the Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, the AIM 260 Lockheed Martin is developing goes into service with the F -2, which we think will be either this year or later next year.

But that's the environment that we're dealing with now. And so you need very advanced technologies in order for an aircraft to achieve that same level of air dominance where you can operate in the airspace freely, at least certain parts of the airspace for certain amount of time. And we don't know exactly what technologies they're talking about. We do know that General Goldfein said in September 2019 that when he was still chief of staff of the Air Force, that there would be five technologies created by the next generation air dominance program, the platform that penetrating counterair fighter just being one of them. The other one that we're sure about is the next generation adaptive propulsion system, which is a new Turbo fan with the adaptive bypass flow technology that's already been developed for the F-35 re-engineering program. Although where that goes is not clear for the F-35.

It's definitely a baseline for the next generation air dominance platform. But there could be other things, the networks, the mission systems, and maybe even defensive systems, other types of missiles maybe in development as part of this program to bring this all together. We know that the Air Force's program something like 30 billion starting from that starting point in 2016 all the way to now in the non-classified space. And that doesn't include things like Chatham and it doesn't include the Aerospace Innovation Initiative because we don't know what that funding was. So that is the sum total of everything we've been able to sort of glean on this program so far.

Jen DiMascio:  Brian, did you have more to add there on the contractor side?

Brian Everstine: Well, yeah, I was just kind of interested in everyone's thoughts on kind of the main players here and obviously we have Lockheed Martin, kind of the heavyweight in the fighter space right now with the F-35 program that's going to be going on for quite a while ahead. We have Northrop Grumman, I'm just getting started on the B-21, also doing the F-35 fuselage, as well is expert at that area. We have, Boeing does have a hot production line for now on some 4.5 generation fighters with F-15 EX, F-18, but kind of has their longer term outlook on advanced aircraft is kind of more up in the air compared to the other two.

Steven touched on NGAD and there's been some kind of back and forth within the Air Force on the importance of fighter competitions for advanced engine development at that Lifecycle Management center last summer. Their engine expert kind of raised the possibility of the F-35 re-engineering being critical to keep this advanced industrial base going because you only really have the two players of GE and Pratt in that space and without the F-35 re-engineering, this really only end gap as the only project in town to keep that technology going.

Steve Trimble:  And we know that the NGAD program, next generation adaptive propulsion program has awarded three contracts, one to Lockheed, one to Boeing, and one to Northrop, which basically confirms the competitive field for the NGAD platform they're talking about, they're doing the early studies of how you would integrate this engine on each of their designs. Now what we don't know is how many teams are advancing into the final proposal stage. If you recall with the F-35 program, there were three teams during the JAS program and one of them was eliminated. The McDonnell Douglass proposal was eliminated. Only two submitted final proposals. In the case of F-22, there were seven different initial proposals and then ultimately only two that were submitted for the final contract and went to the X-Plane stage. I would imagine by the way, that there may have been something like an X-Plane flyoff with at least two of these companies already if they're at this stage, just like we saw on F-35 and just like we saw on F-22.

So expect something like that being involved too. And let's not forget, this is only one of the NGAD programs. There's also another one, the Navy, which pronounces theirs as NGAD, not NGAD and it's probably a different aircraft. They have different requirements. The last time we heard anything from the Navy about their specific requirements, it was in May of 2019 at Sierra Space where the representative at OPNAV who was speaking told me afterwards that they don't have the same requirement for penetrating stealth as the Air Force, VHF penetrating stealth. They're focused much more on endurance.

If that's the case, they are fine with vertical tails because that's the big discriminator for VHF stealth is having any of these vertical surfaces that you see on fighter aircraft today. And also why in the mid-teens, you also saw all of the defense companies show renderings of a next generation fighter before that got locked down and they weren't allowed to do that anymore. All showing tailless supersonic plan forms and AFRL also investing significantly in how to design an efficient supersonic air vehicles called the ESAV program. But that being tailless and supersonic at the same time.

Jen DiMascio:  What does that tell you about an engine for a Navy fighter? Do you think they're going to use draw on the Air Force's research for that or use something existing?

Steve Trimble:  I think whatever comes out of the NGAD program being the most state-of-the-art fighter would work for either a service or either service would probably want to use that. I'm not sure the Navy has the funding to move forward with their own new engine development program, which they probably would need to do. And of course, adaptive propulsion fits into their endurance requirement very well.

Brian Everstine:  Yeah. The only thing I wanted to add on NGAD is we had a little bit of an update on it at Tailhook last fall and the Navy talked about how they're in the concept refinement phase right now working with the Air Force and the intelligence agencies on their development. They said compared to the Air Force, they have separate requirements, ultimately separate missions they're trying to get after. We hint at some of that difference. Last summer, the Chief of Naval Operations put out his kind of long-term navigation plan and in it he calls for 1,300 long range combat aircraft to go along with 10 carriers and he has a plan for 60% accrued. So that would kind of leave an estimate number of about 600 combat aircraft including F-35 and NGAD.

Steve Trimble:  One important thing to think about in terms of the naval requirement is that I'm not sure, so it's an FA-XX, that's what they call theirs rather than FX for the Air Force F Fighter and Attack, and I'm not sure which one they want to emphasize or whether they want an AF-XX or an FA-XX meaning that do they want a long-range bomber like what they used to have with the AA-6 and what they tried to get with the AA-12 before it was canceled in 1991, or do they want the ultimate carrier defense fighter basically the replacement for the F-14.

The Super Hornet has that role right now and the Super Hornet is what this aircraft is supposed to replace as super hornets retired, NGAD will replace it, but that's a fleet defense fighter. The Super Hornet replaced the F -4, even though it really was a totally different aircraft than the F-14. There's a lot of debate about which way the Navy should go on this. It seems like to me they need that penetrating stealth attack aircraft, but I'm not sure that's what they want. And also it's just now sort of lined up to make sense for them to do that. They might go with that sort of fleet defense fighter.

Jen DiMascio:  Matt, did you want to expound on that a bit?

Matt Jouppi:  Just to go back to NATF, the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter component that was concurrent to ATF back then. They were looking at a low observable kind of evolution progression of that 14 concept where they wanted to shoot the archer before he shot their arrows. And so they would be targeting the Soviet backfire bombers with Long Ranch anti-ship missiles. And at that time they were looking at a common engines and some common avionics with the Air Force ATF program. They thought they could save up to maybe 44% of the cost to it. But again, they did have distinct requirements from the Air Force.

One of them again, was they were not as stringent with low observables, but they did also put greater emphasis on longer range sensors because that ability to prosecute Target said really long ranges from the carrier group was very important to them. And they also wanted probably a better emphasis on ERST, the Air Force later to scope that for ATF. Again, like Steve was saying, endurance was very important to them and also just carrier suitability requirements, the limited amount of deck space on the carrier and hangar suitability, et cetera, is going to reduce the inherent size of the airframe and what can be accommodated on the carrier.

Jen DiMascio:  Well, unfortunately, that's all we have time for today. Don't miss the next episode by subscribing to Check 6 in your podcast app of choice. If you're listening to us in Apple podcasts, please leave us a star rating or a review and thanks for listening. Thank you, Matt, Brian. Thank you, Steve. See you around the next Check 6.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Matthew Jouppi

Matthew is the Military Program Analyst at Aviation Week’s Intelligence and Data Services (IDS). Matthew previously served as a Defense Analyst covering the Asia-Pacific region for IDS.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.