Aerospace is wary of the digital design revolution – Breaking the defense Breaking the defense


Concept art of Lockheed Martin NGAD

WASHINGTON: One of the biggest questions about the Digital Century Series model proposed by Air Force Acquisition Czar Will Roper is whether the shrinking US aerospace industrial base can handle the Next-Generation Air Dominance program ( NGAD), analysts said.

“There are three or four American companies that can build an airframe, install engines in it and add a few systems,” Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group wrote in an analysis following Roper’s revelation in September that a “flight demonstrator large-scale “for NGAD actually flew. “And companies are getting lighter in terms of capacity.”

The big three, of course, are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing. The fourth company with the most potential, according to Aboulafia, is Textron.

Another senior military aviation analyst agreed. The analyst says aerospace companies are just not ready to move away from the current military acquisition model, which rewards the cheapest bids on aircraft design in return for long-term benefits over years ( decades!) of fighter and bomber maintenance and upgrades. . As the readers of Breaking D know, the sustaining costs of Air Force fleets account for at least 70% of total lifecycle costs.

Instead of building a sixth-generation fighter to serve 25 years, the NGAD is continued as part of Roper’s Digital Century Series concept, aimed at pumping fighters with new abilities roughly every five years. And, at the same time, the program would build a related family of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to enable “regroup” operations that provide greater mission flexibility.

Roper says the Air Force could build a series of planes with each one optimized for a slightly different part of the air domination mission – that is, an aircraft with an advanced weapon system; one with super long range targeting system etc. He presented a ‘theoretical’ case of how the digital century model could be applied to NGAD in its September 18 digital acquisition strategy guide for its workforce – 75 aircraft built every five years, based on computerized aircraft designs, known as “digital twins”, from three vendors.

(The document was originally called “Take The Red Pill: The New Digital Acquisition Reality”, but the Air Force decided to rename it after realizing that the “Red Pill” meme from the sci-fi movie ” The Matrix “had been hijacked by a virulent online group of misogynistic white supremacists. The first part of the title is now” There Is No Spoon. “)

External analysts aren’t the only ones who are skeptical of the program. Both sides of Capitol Hill have raised eyebrows at what they see as the Air Force’s NGAD plan’s lack of specificity. The Senate Appropriations Committee in its 2021 spending bill released yesterday slashed the Air Force’s over $ 1 billion planned budget by $ 70 million (recommending $ 974 million). Additionally, House and Senate authorizers saved funds in their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.

As the pressure on the defense budget increases in the post-pandemic economy, Congress may be less inclined to give the program the benefit of the doubt.

“I think a new 6th generation manned NGAD platform is still missing and will likely slide even further to the right due to stable / declining budgets,” said Mark Gunzinger, head of future concepts at Mitchell. Institute.

Aboulafia seems to be on the same page. “With a budget that is flattening (at best) and many competing Air Force investment priorities, it is not at all clear that this program will continue. We might just end up with a prototype ready for the museum, ”he wrote in his September memo.

As an example of how companies are reducing their initial investments in new aircraft ideas, Aboulafia pointed out that Boeing is closing its business unit for designing future NeXt concepts. “The company also hinted that there was a question mark over several other forward-looking design units and investments, including Aurora, Wisk and Aerion. … So dreams of using a Century Series-like program to keep design teams intact and competition in the industry may have little hope against the downsizing of the company.

Aboulafia, a seasoned aviation industry analyst, considers himself a Luddite on the hype around digital engineering. He has serious doubts that even the surprising fact that NGAD flight tests began so early is proof that Roper’s “digital revolution” will solve the Air’s long-standing fighter acquisition problems. Strength. So far, he says, there is nothing to suggest that using digital design and engineering practices can take the $ 10 billion development cycle to $ 20 billion from prototype to service.

And if that’s the case, says Aboulafia, “then the Century Series concept doesn’t make sense. Each new type would represent a huge investment in time and money, with little benefit in terms of deployable combat capabilities. “

In making his NGAD test flight announcement, Roper provided few details, citing the high classification of the program.

Roper explained to reporters at the time that the proposed acquisition strategy for NGAD included a number of options for a Digital Century Series-like purchase, and was handed over to Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett for consideration. decision-making. “It’s a question of money,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how 2022 unfolds.”

When asked if Barrett had approved the strategy, given that the normal deadline for the DoD to complete its annual budget request is December, an Air Force spokesperson declined to comment in an e- mail citing the classified status of NGAD.

What is the only NGAD aircraft? As the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains in an October 5 article, a “large-scale test demonstrator” is a term that generally represents a first test bed, as opposed to the term “prototype” which “indicates generally a more production -representative system. Indeed, it is not impossible that, although new subsystems have been tested on something in flight, this airframe could even be an existing airframe equipped with new avionics, engines, communication suites, etc.

Moreover, CRS warned, it is not really clear that the goal of the NGAD program is to build a sixth generation fighter. “The technologies involved in NGAD are being developed to ensure air dominance. Part of the goal of the program is to figure out how to achieve that goal, independent of traditional ideas, ”says CRS. “NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and / or a number of complementary systems – manned, unmanned, possibly manned, cyber, electronic – that would not resemble the traditional ‘fighter’. “

The Air Force has not disclosed which companies are involved in the NGAD, let alone which supplied the “test demonstrator” aircraft. But as her colleague Valerie Insinna reported last week, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are all killing classified aircraft programs. While that doesn’t necessarily mean all of this paste is made on NGAD (and we know these companies make a ton of classified satellites and sensors), given Roper’s “dummy” acquisition strategy, it doesn’t. no exaggeration to wonder if all three have been engaged to provide digital designs.

“A big part of the purpose of Dr Roper’s initiative is to encourage competition and keep the design teams intact, so it would make sense for the top three to be involved,” Aboulafia said. “Given the relatively limited commitment of resources required to build a prototype or two, it is also financially feasible to involve all three. He thinks the roughly $ 1.7 billion apparently spent on the demonstrator is pretty typical for fighters.


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