A decision this month by Air Force officials to publicly acknowledge that it has secretly built and flown a prototype in its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is raising as many questions as it is providing answers to experts and military analysts.
Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition czar, revealed the existence of the highly-classified aircraft during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference.
“We broke records in doing it,” he said, according to Defense News.
Mr. Roper declined to offer any further details about the highly-classified program, including which defense contractor was responsible for the prototype, how many have been built and when or where the test flights have occurred. Any information about the design or capabilities was similarly kept under wraps.
The NGAD program is actually a family of combat systems, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They didn’t really tell us anything. It could be that some are manned and some are unmanned,” Mr. Harrison said. “It could be that some are small, unarmed scouts and some could be manned, armed supersonic fighter jets.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said given the lack of details, it is difficult to know what Mr. Roper was talking about. It’s no surprise that secret prototypes are flown on a semi-regular basis, he said in an email message.
“It is also important to know if it was just an airframe. That’s not that big of a deal,” Lt. Gen. Deptula said.
The more pressing issues will be over actual systems integration that will create operational value in the information age, he said.
“The multi-billion question is what were they testing? New physical production techniques linked with digital engineering aids or actual operational technologies?” Lt. Gen. Deptula said.
During his virtual keynote speech to the Air Force Association’s conference, Mr. Roper said it was critical for the Pentagon to invest in new ways of designing and manufacturing weapons systems.
“The more amazing commercial technology becomes, the more amazing our military technology is going to have to be to overcome the advantages that are available to all,” he said.
Using digital technology to design aircraft also will allow the Department of Defense to rethink how it buys them. It would be less expensive, Mr. Roper argued, to buy new planes more frequently rather than spending large sums of money keeping older ones still flying.
“I think he really is attempting a fundamental shift in the acquisition strategy used for major weapon systems,” Mr. Harrison said. “It’s not clear if it’s going to have staying power.”
Because a new aircraft will almost always end up costing more than the one it replaces, any savings from a digital design may be nonexistent. The basic concept is promising, however but might be better suited toward other technological challenges such as satellites, he said.
“They last 10 to 15 years on average and you can’t touch (satellites) when you put them up there,” Mr. Harrison said. “What you launch is what you get.”
He agreed that Mr. Roper was on the right track in advocating for faster development of weapon systems.
“It has to keep pace with the development of threats that we’re facing,” Mr. Harrison said. “We’ve not been keeping pace with the threats. We’re losing some of our advantage.”