The Air Force believes it can develop, test and field a sophisticated 21st-century fighter jet within five years.
Five years after that, the plan is to do it all again.
In its quest to incorporate tomorrow’s technology into today’s airplanes, the Air Force is embarking on one of its most sweeping overhauls in decades, moving away from reliance on expensive programs that produce jets expected to last 50 years or longer and toward a fleet with a variety of aircraft, each with a specialized mission and a much shorter runway life.
The service’s Digital Century Series — the successor to the Century Series program, which ran through the 1950s and early 1960s — calls for a revolutionary partnership between the Pentagon and private industry. It demands that military contractors draw up plans, conduct all necessary research and development, and deliver combat-ready planes to the Air Force within five years.
Analysts and retired Air Force officers say the initiative, spearheaded by the service’s top acquisition official, Will Roper, is desperately needed and that the U.S. military needs to better incorporate digital engineering and other technology into its next-generation fighters.
The state of U.S. air power, they say, is “geriatric” and a failure to stay at the forefront of aviation could erode the nation’s military advantage over rapidly modernizing rivals such as China.
Analysts also warn that the path is fraught with pitfalls. One is skepticism that contractors — many of which are used to multibillion-dollar paydays and huge profit margins in defense contracts — will make the money they expect. Other real concerns involve the time, money and manpower needed to perform maintenance on a variety of jets, each of which could have wildly different equipment.
“The initiative here … makes sense. The problem is, can we turn things up rapidly enough?” said Richard P. Hallion, a leading Air Force historian and former senior adviser for air and space at the Pentagon.
“The nature of the fighter itself is changing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the fighter is going away. It doesn’t mean there’s no role for air-to-air combat. There certainly is. But aircraft are now becoming part of a very broad, distributed network where you have inhabited aircraft increasingly linked with [unmanned aerial vehicles] increasingly informed by ground-based, atmospheric, space-based sensors. And all of this is netted together where the aircraft itself is not only an information sharer; it’s also a sensor and a shooter combined.”
Several retired high-ranking Air Force officials told The Washington Times that the service has failed in many ways to keep pace with rapid technological changes. Instead, the Air Force and other services are sometimes impeded by huge contracts designed to produce one plane that is expected to do all things.
The best example may be the F-35 family of fighter jets, a $1 trillion deal with Lockheed Martin that is expected to last 60 years. The program has been plagued by delays and reported problems with the aircraft, leading to tough questions about whether the Pentagon needs to rethink the way it designs and fields its fighters.
“The Air Force has a geriatric force structure,” said retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. “It is lagging [behind] the fast pace of the development of technology. It is falling behind the necessary recapitalization rate of old aircraft. And it is still reliant on a Cold War acquisition paradigm.”
Mr. Deptula said the Digital Century Series approach is “spot on” and shows the Air Force recognizes its need for deep, lasting changes.
New era, new capabilities
At its core, the Digital Century Series program aims to use the latest technology to keep adversaries — including an emboldened China, which has invested heavily in its military and defensive capabilities — off balance and unsure of what the U.S. has in its arsenal.
Imagine if “every four or five years there was the F-200, F-201, F-202 and it was vague and mysterious … but it’s clear it’s a real program and there are real airplanes flying,” Mr. Roper told Defense News in a recent interview. “Well, now you have to figure out: What are we bringing to the fight? What improved? How certain are you that you’ve got the best airplane to win?”
Current fighter jets are updated routinely and undergo rigorous maintenance protocols to ensure their components and software are at the cutting edge. But military and defense industry analysts say that approach often runs into problems because it is difficult to constantly upgrade aircraft built decades ago.
Many of the best-known U.S. fighters, such as the F-22 (introduced into service in 2005) and the F-16 (first deployed in 1978), are designed to handle 8,000 flight hours or more. Although the nuts and bolts of the aircraft are able to handle decades of service, analysts say, a new wave of fighter jets specifically designed to be rotated out of service much quicker offers a host of strategic advantages, not the least of which is saving millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
“What we kept discovering is long-term sustainment is a big driver in cost,” retired Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” J. Carlisle, now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association, said in an interview. “We can build really good airplanes that do really well for 2,000 hours with great technology and then spin off of that and create the next one.”
Lockheed Martin and other top defense contractors are sure to continue playing a leading role, Mr. Carlisle said, but the rise of smaller, more nimble companies will be key to making the new approach a reality. A company tasked with designing a plane that incorporates a new weapon or new surveillance equipment with the knowledge that the aircraft won’t be in service for three or four decades could ultimately provide products that the Air Force couldn’t get under its past acquisition strategies, analysts said.
The greatest challenge confronting the Air Force, analysts say, is streamlining the process as much as possible so that if multiple planes are in rotation at any given time, the service is able to juggle each aircraft’s specific needs.
“Even if you can rapidly build different airframes, there’s still the issue of supporting them. A proliferation of platforms could multiply the challenge of keeping sufficient spare parts for each on hand and ensuring you have maintainers with the right technical expertise available,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr., now executive director at the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. “Obviously, to make this work, low maintenance would have to be designed into the platform, and advanced technologies like 3D printing would have to be shown to be reliable sources of replacement parts when and where they would be needed.”
The Air Force’s initial Century Series program, which produced six types of aircraft from 1952 to 1964, offers valuable lessons on how to allocate resources wisely and avoid spending money on aircraft that aren’t serving any real purpose. Although the Century Series program succeeded in ramping up production times, few of the planes proved worthwhile in the air campaign in Vietnam, critics say.
“When we actually got into combat in Vietnam, we found the most useful of those airplanes was the F-100 … but overall we had the wrong aircraft for the wrong war,” said Mr. Hallion, the Air Force historian. “I like the idea of accelerating acquisition and producing multiple types. But if we do so, we should make sure those types are really going to be useful for us.”
Another major obstacle facing the initiative is the pace of the federal government and the often tedious acquisition process inside the Pentagon, both of which have grown slower in some ways since the 1950s. The only way the Digital Century Series makes sense, they say, is if both processes move much faster with greater coordination between Pentagon leaders and both chambers of Congress.
“Planners also need to survey the existing acquisition system to make sure it could keep up with the swift award of contracts, something that would seem to be an essential element of the program. If changes in the law are needed, getting Congress on board as soon as possible is vital,” Mr. Dunlap said. “Still, if the Air Force is to maintain an asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries, this sort of out-of-the-box thinking is what we’ll have to have.”