U.S. Air Force Leaders Adopting New Acquisition Philosophy

 E-8C Joint Star
The Air Force has been building the Advanced Battle Management System to replace the E-8C Joint Stars. Will such experiments continue?
Credit: Tech. Sgt. John Lasky/U.S. Air Force

In recent years, the U.S. Air Force adopted a mantra of not being afraid to fail in development—undertaking several experiments and demonstration efforts, with steadily growing budgets, aimed at testing out what could be possible for next-generation aircraft, command and control and weapons.

This included major efforts such as the broad Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) to replace the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars. The service experimented with light attack aircraft to find cheaper ways of flying close air support. There were several quick attempts to develop autonomous systems. And there was even brainstorming of a whole new way of buying a next-generation fighter aircraft, combining the Vietnam-era “Century Series” fighter model with modern digital engineering tools to acquire iterations of fighters.

  • U.S. Air Force leaders plan to toughen development program selection
  • Move follows years of experimentation and demos
  • 2024 budget request will lay out next steps

When Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall came into the job last year, he largely hit the brakes on many of these concepts. He ended some of the experimental and prototyping efforts and implemented a full review of programs with the goal of cutting anything unnecessary, even if the program had shown some success. The results of his labors will become apparent in the next budget release, in the spring of 2023, as the service lays out its next five-year program objective memoranda. The new approach has already created a change in thinking among the Air Force’s acquisition officials.

“You have to be disciplined about the things you start,” Kendall said in announcing the review in February. “I’ve seen a few projects, I’ll be blunt, that I don’t think are ever going to go to the field, whether they’re successful or not. I’ve seen a few others that almost certainly should go to the field if they’re successful. And we need to distinguish [between] those two and emphasize [those] in the latter category.”

At Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), this means program leaders must be willing to end their efforts if service leaders say so, based on the conclusion that the work will not become a meaningful program soon.

“[Kendall] is going through [everything,] literally at the project level. . . . Let’s say [it] was wildly successful, but he doesn’t see a meaningful operational capability; then he’s questioning it,” says AFMC chief Gen. Duke Richardson. “What does that mean? It means it’s technically feasible, it means that it’s operationally available . . . it means it’s affordable. All of those things, that’s what he’s looking at. I think he is not backing off on the need for speed, so to speak. . . . [But] he wants to make sure he’s going in the right direction. . . . I think in the past, we would probably go out there doing too many things. It’s just a different philosophy. The reality is there’s no way all that stuff can transition over [to programs of record].”

The most notable shift has been in ABMS. Beginning in 2019, the Air Force hosted several “on-ramp” experiments, bringing in hundreds of companies to showcase new networking technologies to connect sensors with weapons systems, the service’s share of the Pentagon’s broad effort it calls Joint All-Domain Command and Control. Kendall has slowed this process down to review its goals and what could become operationally viable.

There has not been a major demonstration since mid-2021, even though the Army’s similar Project Convergence and the Navy’s Project Overmatch are continuing. The hardware acquisitions originally expected, such as the first “Capability Release”—a networking pod to be attached to the Boeing KC-46 to bridge communications between fifth-generation fighters—has not yet been purchased more than two years since it was originally announced. Separate contracts that focus on software development, however, have been signed.

Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, says that while the experiments and demonstrations have been intriguing, they have had limited effectiveness in producing actual capabilities for the service. “There’s literally an infinite number of prototypes and demonstrations that we could do that would be cool and interesting, and there is some value in sort of exercising the innovation muscle, if you will. But because we’re focused on an extremely near-term objective—[if] we can exercise an innovation muscle and deliver an operational capability, we’ve got to do that,” Hunter says, adding that the service needs to become “a little bit ruthless” in its thinking.

For example, the Air Force recently put the final nail in the coffin of what was the Light Attack Experiment. Starting in 2017, under what was first called the OA-X program, the service brought in multiple light attack aircraft for demonstrations and experiments at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, to evaluate their ability to conduct close air support cheaply.

After almost three years and multiple phases of testing, the service in 2020 decided to scrap the overall program to buy aircraft for the close air support role, shifting that focus to U.S. Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch program. Instead, the Air Force bought a small number of Textron AT-6s and Sierra Nevada Corp. A-29s for continued experimentation and air advisor training that was supposed to be handled by Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command. In August, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center officials said the service determined that the aircraft were “in excess” after limited use and was putting them up for sale.

Early in his tenure Kendall announced a series of “operational imperatives” as the highest priorities for development. These included so-called Collaborative Combat Aircraft for the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform and the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber, new ways to conduct moving-target engagement at scale, logistics and basing under attack, among others. The work in these areas, which included requests for information from industry in the spring, will shape the upcoming budget.

The U.S. Air Force plans to sell off AT-6s with which it had planned to experiment for the light attack and surveillance missions. Credit: U.S. Air Force 

For Next-Generation Air Dominance—the sixth-generation fighter under secretive development to replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, Hunter’s predecessor Will Roper had planned a dramatically different approach to development. Dubbed the “Digital Century Series,” based on the Vietnam-era fighters designated F-100 through F-106 that were quickly designed and deployed, Roper envisioned using digital engineering to design and build aircraft quickly to avoid a long-term, traditional acquisition.

However, with the change of administrations and the different approach to acquisition, this plan seems to have died—at least for crewed aircraft.

“We can’t afford to do four different kinds, none of which actually develops into an operational capability,” Hunter says. “We’ve got to develop an operational capability in a relatively quick period of time, so that does constrain how much iterative stuff we can do—[or] at least do simultaneously.”

The Collaborative Combat Aircraft loyal wingman and other cheaper systems could keep the iterative idea alive, however.

“The idea of a Collaborative Combat Aircraft is something that can give you mass more affordably than crewed systems,” Hunter says. “So I think we are seeing that mindset. . . . I think [there are] elements of that vision that we absolutely need to leverage. But we have a clear problem to solve, and that’s . . . delivering an operational capability in the near-term time frame that gives us some affordable mass.”

Within the AFMC is the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which is tasked with the service’s key science and technology development. The Pentagon breaks down research, development test and evaluation into eight budget codes, and the AFRL handles five for the Air Force: basic research, applied research, advanced technology development, advanced component development and prototyping, and system development and demonstration. Richardson says Kendall’s reviews are specifically looking at the AFRL’s advanced technology development and advanced component development and prototyping, with an eye on what will address his imperatives and be able to bridge the “valley of death” between prototypes and programs of record.

Richardson points to ongoing programs, such as the autonomous demonstrator Skyborg and the development of a pallet to launch cruise missiles that can be dropped from a cargo plane. These near-term developmental projects are under the AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, which wants to operationalize a concept in about a 18-month time frame. The AFRL also has the Transformational Capabilities Office, tasked with much of the work under the Vanguard programs that are the service’s top priorities for becoming operational in a longer timeline, and the long-term Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office.

Richardson says a recent “stark change” in the command has been to link the laboratory directly with program executive officers. For example, AFRL officials and the program executive for fighters are jointly overseeing progress with Skyborg, to inform how the Collaborative Combat Aircraft will be developed and used—a top priority for the secretary.

“He wants to see which of those projects links up tightly with the operational imperatives that can deliver operational, meaningful capability. That phrase is never going to go away,” Richardson says. “The question for me is the yield rate. . . . What is a good yield rate? We’re going to do a lot of stuff in the lab. . . . We don’t expect all of it to become programs of record, but we want some to.”

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.