US Air Force Hopes Radical Acquisitions Program Will Spawn F-35 Successor

August 5, 2020 Updated: August 12, 2020

Inspired by the Cold War program that spawned the first U.S. supersonic fighter jets and bombers, the Air Force has once again identified the need for speed.

But not airspeed. Acquisition speed.

The Air Force’s chief weapons buyer, Will Roper, is turning aircraft development on its head to keep one step ahead of Russia and China as the U.S. military reshapes for an era of renewed great power competition. He thinks he can develop a new fighter three times faster than any has been developed in the past half-century.

But some analysts, who have seen many military designs die in the notorious “valley of death” between prototyping and large-scale production, are skeptical of the approach. Others think it might better suit unmanned aircraft.

Citing the way the car industry tweaks and improves designs, Roper aims to marry cutting-edge digital design techniques with a proposal that hearkens to the Century Series program of the 1950s.

“The idea behind the [original] Century Series was to develop new designs very quickly, build them and evaluate them, and then go right to the next design that incorporates the lessons from the previous design,” Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times.

“The idea would be maybe the first one, the F-100, was going to be a traditional jet fighter-bomber aircraft, and then the next one might be an interceptor that designed mostly to attack enemy bombers.”

Epoch Times Photo
E-2097 North American F-100A Super Sabre sitting on the Rogers dry lakebed, 1959. (NASA/F-100 Project)

Every year, they came out with a new design, bought hundreds, then moved on to the next one.

“After they built these half-dozen fighters, the idea would be well, ‘OK, we’ve learned a lot about jet propulsion, we know more about supersonic flight, and by looking at the collection of fighters we have, we can decide what are the ones we want to build as a main jet fighter of the future for the Air Force.’

“They’re going to basically redo this approach … to develop the successor to the F-35,” Clark said.

Epoch Times Photo
An F-35 performs a high-speed pass during the Oregon International Airshow in McMinnville, Oregon, on Sept. 21, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Cook)

The new program, called the Digital Century Series, is just one of several lines of effort that may churn out the next generations of fighter jets.

At present, typically, the Air Force develops a concept for a new aircraft, perhaps influenced by demonstration aircraft or two, then puts it out for competition. Competing designs are submitted, then a winning prototype is selected for production. Assuming the political winds continue blowing in the right direction, that design will then go on to be produced in numbers.

Even then, the first aircraft rolling off the line still have to jump through further testing hoops before being fully integrated into the force.

From concept to flying in combat might typically take 20 years.

But that approach doesn’t fit today’s rapid pace of technological innovation, Roper says.

Speed Chess

He likens the present arms race to speed chess.

The Air Force needs to get out of the “lethargic, chess-playing mentality in the Cold War, where the moves were well thought through, but slow and few as our new programs were decades apart,” Roper told reporters at a Mitchell Institute event on June 9.  Instead, the force needs “a model where we can make moves all the time, play more of the game of speed chess,” he said.

A continual process of development makes it harder for adversaries to make decisions about their own weapon’s development because they cannot get a clear picture of the strategic environment.

In the past, “technology gains were hard-fought, so you could rest on them longer,” Roper says. Today, however, he says “technology is cheap, ubiquitous, fast happening all the time, and happening 80 percent outside of government.

“The model has to change because technology is everywhere. And we don’t know which technology is going to be the next big mover and shaker on the battlefield, there may be multiple ones. The speed at which we do it, the agility by which we do it are the most important things in this century.”

Improvements to computer modeling reduce the need for expensive, time-consuming prototyping, and can even model production line assembly and maintenance, Roper says.

He emphasizes the importance of the “digital thread”—a cutting-edge way of tracking and incorporating design changes and feedback that reduces the need for prototype and real-world testing.

The Army, too, has been trying to hack the slow-moving acquisitions cycle, trying to get still-developing kit into soldiers’ hands to tighten feedback circles, running testing and development in parallel instead of series, and setting ambitious time-frames.

The military is revamping as a whole to align with the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which placed renewed competition with Russia and China as the top priority.

This “great power competition” reaches far beyond the battlefield to include foreign policy, economics, intellectual property protection, and public relations. Analysts have increasingly called for a whole-of-government approach in the race for supremacy.

The Unmanned Wingman

One common theme of modernization is the development of unmanned systems that can potentially collaborate with human counterparts. The Air Force is prototyping this kind of concept with Skyborg, its so-called unmanned wingman program.

Clark thinks unmanned aircraft are a much more natural fit for the Digital Century Series than the current, more ambitious goals. One of the reasons, he says, is that the series will produce various modular components that will be mixed and matched to produce new aircraft.

“As they do each successive design, it can bring in parts from the previous airplane and add some new parts, but the airframe may be very similar between the two designs.”

That modular approach works for large aircraft, such as bombers and even passenger planes, he says. Swapping electronic modules in and out doesn’t work for fighter jets with limited space, where every element needs to be crafted to fit a unique design puzzle.

Unmanned systems, by contrast, have more space to play with and fewer design constraints, says Clark, allowing for such a modular approach. They are also much cheaper to produce, with the XQ-58 Valkyrie, for example, expected to cost just $2 million apiece.

Epoch Times Photo
The Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie during a test flight in this March 28, 2020, dated handout photograph from the Air Force. (U.S. Department of Defense)

But overall, Clark says that the approach of the Digital Series overall has great value and could be adopted for naval or Army unmanned systems.

The Valley of Death

Some defense analysts, such as John Venable at the Heritage Foundation, applaud the intention of the Digital Century Series, but worry it may fall at political hurdles and that the time frame is simply too ambitious.

Roper has mentioned time frames of 3 to 5 years.

“If you go back to F-16, that was the last fighter that was actually procured in a very timely fashion,” Venable says. Packed with what was at the time game-changing technology, the F-15 took about 13 years from the drawing board to operational service.

“To think that you’re going to be able to speed that up the entire process to three years for an operational airplane hitting the ramp, I think that’s a little overzealous,” he said.

Venable says that the intention to ramp up the acquisitions process is good, however, adding that the series “may help cut some corners off of the current process.”

Another hurdle, he says, is likely to be the cost.

Venable says that the Digital Century Series aircraft are going to be expensive to buy because they won’t be made in high numbers. He says Roper has indicated a low estimate of around $250 million per aircraft; by comparison, the F-35 is now less than $80 million.

Venable says that the cost saving is supposed to be in the logistical tail—the logic being that with a continual stream of new aircraft, less maintenance and supply is needed, and that older aircraft get progressively more expensive to maintain.

Aircraft typically cost far more to maintain than to buy, and lifetime costs are increasingly scrutinized by Congress. While an F-35, for example, has a price tag of around $80 million, it will cost about $350 million over its lifetime.

But Venable says he struggles to understand the logic, because he says even if a new fighter is performing well, typically, a part will break about once every five flights. With jets flying more than 250 times a year, Venable doesn’t think that it will be easy to save on maintenance.

Epoch Times Photo
F-105 Thunderchiefs in this DOD handout image from 1974. (507th Fighter Wing, 507th Wing, 507th Tactical Fighter Group, 507th Fighter Group).

Then, there’s the politics. Even if Roper manages to produce an airplane in the short time frame, Venable says that Congress won’t buy a $250 million fighter “in a million years.”

As for the game-changing potential of the software modeling that can cut down on real-world testing, Venable says: “Industry will tell the Air Force, it’s absolutely doable, and the Air Force is buying that. But I’m not sure at the end of the day, this is going to end up to be the Nirvana project that they’ve got in mind.”

Other critics have said that the original Century Series planes weren’t the model of success. Forty percent of the first aircraft, the F-100, were lost in accidents, according to Loren Thomson, writing in Forbes. The F-105, a follow-on to the F-100, was withdrawn from combat due to poor performance.

The original Century Series saw engineers pit themselves against the laws of aerodynamics, pushing the limits of airframes and engines. But new manufacturing technologies allow those elements to be modeled and built more cheaply, Clark says.

“I think most of the innovation is going to be in the mission system: the sensors, echo radar, the passive sensors, the computer processors, the guidance systems,” he said.

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