Podcast: What’s Next for the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program

Aviation Week editors discuss the roots of the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance program, its use of digital engineering to speed development and some of the obstacles it may face in the future.

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Below is a rush transcript of Aviation Week’s Sept. 18, 2020, Check 6 podcast.


Jen DiMascio:             Hi, and welcome to Check Six, Aviation Week's podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for Defense and Space. I'm here with Defense Editor, Steve Trimble and Pentagon Editor Lee Hudson. We're here at the closing of the Air Force Association’s (AFA) Virtual Airspace and Cyber Conference, where the big news was acquisition chief Will Ropers revelation that the Air Force has tested a full scale flight demonstrator for the services program for a new family of aircraft and capabilities known as the Next Generation Air Dominance Program. Steve, I'm wondering if you can kind of go back and tell us what is Next Generation Air Dominance, and where did that program emerge from? How did we get from nowhere to a demonstrator? It didn't just happen like that.

Steve Trimble:            Well, it seemed to, I mean, when Roper, sorry, Dr. Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Technology and Logistics, announced very abruptly yesterday during his speech that this flight demonstrator had flown. I think that caught everybody by surprise. I wasn't expecting that kind of announcement during his speech at AFA. It's exciting. I mean, I can't, as an aviation aerospace journalist with an interest in military aviation, I mean, that's as good as it gets. A secret flight demonstrator for a new fighter that you hear about for the first time, it's confirmed. There's nothing more exciting than that, except for actually seeing it, which I hope we see one day. It turns out that, I mean, there is a paper trail. There's little breadcrumbs that have been sprinkled along the path of public comments by Air Force leaders over the past couple of years leading to this.

                                   Some of them have only become sensible in retrospect, now that we know that this thing really does exist, but in some ways they're actually quite explicit. I think I'd point initially to an exchange I had with General Goldfein, who just retired a month ago, but a year ago at the same event, even though it wasn't virtual at the time, it was in person, General Goldfein, chief of staff, had a press conference. I was asking about Next Generation Air Dominance. My big question was about the propulsion side of it. Congress at the time was expressing quite a bit of frustration with the Air Force, because it spent billions of dollars on adaptive cycle propulsion. There was no publicly available roadmap to use it. So they were saying, why are you still asking for this money? We have no place to put it, so tell us where you're going to put it.

                                   I put that question to him and he explained, well, it's a bit difficult because there's a lot of classification involved in this. So there's only so much we can say. Then he said, I'll read you his exact quote. He said, "Here's our end guide strategy. We have five key technologies that we're investing in, that we don't intend to have all come together on a single platform. To be able to do the mission in the future, we expect these technologies to be adaptable to existing platforms, and we expect these technologies to come forward into a family. I know we use family systems a lot, but really, and truly that's the next generation of air dominance. So our intent is to keep these joint technologies moving aggressively and have them come together. They will all mature and accelerate at different paces. As they become ready you'll see us adapting them on existing platforms, sensors and weapons, and also looking at new platforms sensors, and weapons."

                                   That was what he said. I didn't understand what really, what he was getting at. I just didn't, I just thought he didn't answer my question. I repeated my question. When are we going to see a roadmap for adaptive cycle propulsion? His answer was, "There has to be a test article to be able to take some of those technologies to mature. That's probably about as far as I can go." So what he was saying there, in retrospect, is we have five technologies that we're going to put on NGAD. He didn't say it, but it sounds like adaptive cycle propulsion is one of them. They need a test article, a flight test demonstrator, in other words, to validate the maturity of the technologies in flight. That was almost as explicit as the Air Force has been about that. Really, there was a time when the Department of Defense was even more explicit about the plans to actually use flight demonstrators for Next Generation Air Dominance. It goes back to congressional testimony in 2016.

                                   At the time, Frank Kendall, who was then the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, Acquisition Technology and Logistics, in his written testimony, included this written testimony to the House of Representatives, this was actually in calendar year 2014, and it was going to launch a program in fiscal year 2015. It was the Aerospace Innovation Initiative that would be managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA. It says, "The AII, Aerospace Innovation Initiative, includes a new program to demonstrate advanced aircraft technologies in X planes, as well as the ongoing and previously mentioned advanced engine technology program, which is adaptive cycle propulsion. AII's goals include strengthening the critically important design teams in the defense industrial base and reducing the lead time for future systems. The X planes will not be engineering, manufacturing, development prototypes, or have residual operational capabilities.

                                   The results of the successful development and demonstration X plane program will inform future aircraft system acquisitions." That gives you the background on how these flight demonstrators came into existence and what their purpose was. We know from Ropers comments that the flight demonstrator that he's referring to, he called it a full scale flight demonstrator. It's not a sub scale or even a large aircraft that is meant to extrapolate the flying qualities of an even larger aircraft. There's still a lot we don't know about it, but that's generally the gist of how we got here.

Jen DiMascio:             Well, the Air Force has also approved a new acquisition strategy for NGAD. Can you walk us through what that is and what that means?

Steve Trimble:            Yes. Well, I should say on the prototypes themselves, I mean, that is, sorry, it's not the prototype, it's really the flight demonstrator for the Next Generation Air Dominance program. It is not really, in addition to proving those technologies that Goldfein mentioned, the other big focus of that demonstration is to prove that this new development model can succeed. It's based on this digital engineering process and includes what secretary and Dr. Roper called the digital thread and the digital trinity, where you create a digital mock up of an aircraft and all of its systems, down to the LRU level. You use that same model to iterate on the design. That same model allows you to iterate on the production and then anticipate how that will affect sustainment. People will say, well, digital engineering has been around a long time and we've had [CATIA 00:08:10], we've had SAP, we've had Siemens. There's a lot of these tools that have been out there. What they're talking about doing here is different.

                                   In the past, what would happen is they could iterate designs in CATIA, but now the idea is, okay, we can iterate a design. We could change something over here on the wing, on the left wing. Not only will our digital model do what it's done for a decade or so, and then tell us, "Oh. You're going to have to make a little change over here on the right wing," but it's also going to inform our production model that, "Oh. Well, now you have to change how you're going to produce the aircraft." It does that in real time. It also says, "Well, this is going to have an effect on how you sustain the aircraft. This is going to reduce the life of this part. Or this is going to require another type of inspection." It's going to anticipate that, that's the idea anyway. So when they talk about doing that, that is a very powerful tool. The question has always been well, does it work? What are the examples out there of this thing working?

                                   What Dr. Roper has told us in the past, and in press conferences we've had with him, there was one time where he said, "Look. If you only knew the prototypes that we have, where I could show you that this thing works, but I can't show those to you." It's possible he was referring to the technology demonstrator. It's funny, because I mentioned this, because I interviewed Frank Kendall about this about a year ago. I mentioned Ropers comment and I wasn't sure if Roper meant the prototypes for the Next Generation Air Dominance program or the flight demonstrators. Frank Kendall says, I know he told me, he said he knew exactly what Roper was talking about, because he approved the program. That developed those prototypes, and that Frank Kendall, who was very skeptical about this digital engineering approach, versus taking a more conservative approach to, what he calls acquisition surety.

                                   Actually, he doesn't call it that. I shouldn't say that, but somebody that takes a more realistic, he considers, approach to cost estimating and schedule estimating. His main point was that Ropers example did not prove, was not set up to prove that a next generation weapon system, that it would still be far more complex and sophisticated, in that it wouldn't show it all that the next generation weapons system would be that effective, using this digital engineering process. There is some debate and there's some questions about this going forward, but there is no doubt the Air Force is, the current Air Force leadership and the previous Air Force leadership is fully on board with this idea. This is how they're going to take Next Generation Air Dominance.

Jen DiMascio:             That's how they're going to roll into the digital century series, using this kind of digital engineering to produce prototypes of new, this family of aircraft or different types of aircraft?

Steve Trimble:             That's right. It's not just the digital engineering, that's one element of it. Once you start moving to this approach, it opens up a lot of other opportunities, because if you're not going through a standard engineering, manufacturing and development process where you do the preliminary design review (PDR) and then you do the critical design review (CDR) and then you do, first, there's a systems requirement review, PDR, CDR and so on, and you're not doing a winner takes all anymore. What they're talking about doing is, instead of creating an F-35, this big monolithic weapon's system platform, that can do all the different things, they're going to break up all these capabilities into different aircraft and make them accomplish the air dominance mission as a network, rather than on a single platform. The single platform may have all those capabilities, but it's also very vulnerable, and you lose all those capabilities if you lose one.

Jen DiMascio:             Can I just interrupt there? If you go back to those technologies, what is it? Five technologies that they wanted to test on the next generation aircraft, so does that mean that all those five technologies would be on this flight demonstrator or those would be like one technology per aircraft in the family?

Steve Trimble:             Well, I don't know. I mean, we don't know if there's actually multiple flight demonstrators out there and they just told us about one, or if that's exactly what they're doing, they're putting all five of those technologies, whatever they are, on the same flight demonstrator. Or it's possible that they're not putting them all on at the same time. That they could have multiple flights and put some on depending on the timing of it. As General Goldfein said, I mean, some of these technologies are things they plan to bring back into the existing fleet. They have talked about doing that with adaptive cycle propulsion. They've talked about doing that with directed energy systems. I imagine that one of the key technologies for Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft is going to be a power and thermal management system.

                                   You're going to have much more power draw, you're going to have a whole lot of heat, waste heat, generated by that power generation that you have to get rid of or manage in some way. Yeah, so those are the kinds of technologies I'd look for as long as, as well as some kind of new sensor or electronic warfare, kinetic warfare, missiles and stuff. All those are, I'm sure, somewhere in the package, so they could all be sort of mixed and matched. The key thing about the industrial model as well is that is not going to be winner take all. There's going to be multiple aircraft, multiple platforms. When I talked to General Mark Kelly, who's the new head of Air Combat Command, on Monday about this, he said, "We call it the digital century series, but that's probably not the right way to think about this."

                                   They've mentioned this before that it's really the F-117. It's that model. If you think about the F-117, it was a stealth fighter, it was a next generation fighter for it's time. Some people would say, well, no, it's really a bomber. I mean, they've got a point, but it was a stealth aircraft. Still combat, a stealthy combat aircraft. It was produced in a small batch of about 50 aircraft. I think it was 59 aircraft total over a short period of time, relatively short period of time. It was done all in secret. They roll it out for a big debut in a war. In fact, we got the pictures on the cover just a few months before the war started. The first pictures of the actual F-117 in flight. So thinking about it in the same way, that you're going to have only production runs of 50 aircraft, maybe a couple of hundred aircraft.

                                   Also, the aircraft wouldn't be kept in service like the F-15 or the F-16. It's going on 50 years now. They want to retire this thing and get rid of it after 15 years. They don't want to sustain this thing, whatever it is, for decades. Just one decade, decade and a half, and then get rid of it and go onto the next technology. That leads to a lot of other assumptions though. How do you sustain that? Can you be sure that in 15 years you're going to get the support you need to replace it with the same idea that you're replacing it now? We've been through that. It tends to go into these long-term monolithic weapon system programs. So, it seems to be where the industry wants to go, and the whole complex, right? So maybe it won't go that way. Maybe it will, but that's where they want to go, at least right now.

Jen DiMascio:             Well, that's a lot to think about, I mean, how do they even afford the program as it is given the Air Force's numerous financial commitments?

Steve Trimble:             Well, they've already had to make some sacrifices on this program, which is an amazing thing to say, or they've, between what they've spent already, that we know about in the budget documents, and what they've got lined up, it's about $10 billion between fiscal year 2017 and 2024. Now, but that's actually a huge discount, because up until a year ago, they planned to spend $13 billion between fiscal year 2020 and 2024. That's right. No. No. Yeah. Yeah. That's exactly right. This year they, so last year they cut that by half, they went from $13.2 billion in the budget to about $6.1 billion in the budget over that same period. That was a pretty significant cut. It came at a time when the Air Force basically decided to kind of treat this as a completely different kind of weapons program.

                                   It wasn't going to be that monolithic weapon system with sort of a family of supporting elements around it. If you go back in the budget documents and you really look through them, it seems pretty clear that they were planning to do a traditional milestone B for a big engineering and manufacturing development type contract in fiscal year 2023. That's when you saw this huge spending ramp up for a Next Generation Air Dominance platform. That all went away in last year's budget cycle. This year's budget cycle pretty much kept that going. We also learned some new things in this year's budget cycle about Next Generation Air Dominance. We found out for the first time that the next generation adaptive propulsion system that would be used for it, which basically introduces a new bypass air flow, a second stream that bypasses the engine core and three streams overall. We've got one stream that goes through the engine core.

                                   That's to increase the fuel efficiency, which increases the range. Also, gives you a lot more thermal management capacity because those bypass ducts can act as a heat sink. That engine will be ready in fiscal year 2025. Usually what happens is the engine gets ready and they have it all tested, in this case, fiscal year 2025, and then within a year or two, they've got it integrated on a new aircraft and they try to sequence it that way and in a just-in-time logistics kind of thing. You don't want an engine like this sitting around and getting obsolescent for no reason. You want something to put it on it almost immediately. So you can expect that flight demonstrations would start in 2026 or 2027, at the latest, as long as that propulsion system stays on track.

Jen DiMascio:             Wow. Yeah. Are you seeing any trouble on the horizon? I know General Brown came in as the new chief of staff of the Air Force recently, and has talked about really changing the way kind of, it sounds like he wants to shed a lot of old programs or old platforms. Did he talk about that at all at AFA? I mean that, Lee, from your perspective, you cover the Hill a lot. That's been a challenge. What do you think are the prospects for that?

Lee Hudson:               It seems to me that General Brown, the new chief of staff of the Air Force, is going to continue what Goldfein did, his predecessor. He wants to continue join all domain command and control. He wants to continue with all these modernization programs, but this week at AFA, he did push a little at Congress saying that Congress not allowing the Air Force to retire certain aircraft is really going to hinder them with the potential to modernize and tightening the budgets. For instance, during the last budget cycle, the Air Force proposed retiring MQ9, stopping that production line, and also retiring some of the bomber fleet. It seems like that's not going to happen. Congress isn't going to let that happen. Again, I mean, I feel like it's the same story every year. The services propose options and Congress blocks it. I think the main reason for that is they don't see where those jobs will occur in their state. If the Air Force or the other services can answer those questions, I think they have a lot, they'll get a better result.

Jen DiMascio:             Well, not only that, I mean, you did some reporting this week about the MQ9. If the Air Force is going in the direction of trying to retire that platform, General Atomics is going in the direction of trying to add new bells and whistles to keep it relevant for the future, right? What are they offering, and do those things coexist or collide?

Lee Hudson:               I think General Atomics and others are trying to rebrand the MQ-9 Reaper. I think the MQ-9 is really associated with counter-insurgency operations. Now that the Pentagon is pivoting to great power competition with Russia and China, they are trying to repackage the MQ-9 so that it's still relevant in a future war. Whether that's adding different communications pods, different survivability, chaff, things like that, to that airframe. Steve, what do you think about their proposal?

Steve Trimble:             I mean, this is their challenge, right? I mean, they're talking about rebranding it for the attritable aircraft era and is the MQ-9 attritable? In a way, I mean, it has been the attritable aircraft. It is the aircraft that we send in and do the dull, dangerous and dirty missions. That's what it was supposed to do. It's inevitable that you start out with pretty primitive type sensors or equipment that you can afford to lose, but then it's flying around out there and you're like, well, that camera isn't that really good, can we get something better on it? Let's get a good radar, let's get a good EO opticals, let's get Gorgon Stare on it, a $5 million sensor. Suddenly you're like, well, we can't throw this away and wait a minute, the Houthi rebels in Yemen just shot it down. If they can shoot it down, anybody can, and that's, I mean, that's part of the issue they have. When they talk about going to this attritable aircraft concept, you've got Kratos sitting there with the XQ-58 that they say that at maturity, they can deliver that for $3 million per aircraft.

                                   So you could distribute these throughout a theater of operations, like the Pacific. You could have them take off out of shipping containers, land via parachute, so you don't need runways. Again, though, you're going to have to stay very disciplined and not load up these things with a lot of defensive systems, really good sensors and there's always that tension that pushes these programs in that direction. So we'll see how it all winds up. At the end of the day, it's becoming a very dangerous world for an aircraft like an MQ-9. They're going to have to figure out how they want to operate and how much they can really afford to lose. The other thing that we did a lot of coverage on this week is the different industry concepts for the MQ Next concept. That was the Air Force came out with this RFI back in June for our next generation UAS ISR strike platform, which is very explicitly the MQ-9 replacement that seeks to go into service in 2030.

                                   What we saw from industry was, well, it's not going to look like the MQ-9. It's going to be stealthy. It's going to be pretty sophisticated. They're going to try to keep it at $20 million, which is sort of the high end of what the Air Force defines as attritable. In the price range of attritable, which seems pretty, I wouldn't want to lose something for $20 million. At the same time, they're saying, really, if you want these things to not get shot down a lot, and you want them to be effective and do a job, they're going to have to be pretty sophisticated. They're going to have to be pretty complicated. The traditional defense industry, I'm not sure is totally on board. You do have certain companies like Kratos and Dynetics. They're bringing different ideas to this. So all this is going to go into the mix and we'll see how it plays out over the next few years.

Jen DiMascio:             Well, that's a lot to chew on. I really hope that we come back around and talk more about the Next Generation Air Dominance on a future podcast as we learn more about what that is going to look like, what it does look like and what its prospects are. Unfortunately, we're a bit over time, so we're going to have to wrap it up there and also discuss other things that happened, like the KC-46 news, on a future podcast. Join us again next week for another edition of Check Six. It is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, and Google Play. Also, if you like what you're listening to, please give us a positive review. We'd love to hear your feedback



Jen DiMascio

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

Steve Trimble

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


1 Comment
Great podcast however when Lee croaks her voice it's a bit annoying.