WASHINGTON — The Air Force is focused on avoiding the mistakes that plagued past programs like the F-35, as the service officially kicks off its effort to build a sixth-generation fighter, Secretary Frank Kendall said Monday.
That includes ensuring the Air Force has access to all the sustainment data it needs from the contractor building the Next Generation Air Dominance platform, Kendall told reporters at a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group.
“We’re not going to repeat the, what I think frankly was a serious mistake that was made in the F-35 program” of not obtaining rights to all the fighter’s sustainment data from contractor Lockheed Martin, Kendall said.
When the F-35 program was launched more than two decades ago, Kendall said an acquisition philosophy known as Total System Performance was in favor. Under this approach, he said, a contractor that won a program would own it for its entire lifecycle.
“What that basically does is create a perpetual monopoly,” Kendall said. “I spent years struggling to overcome acquisition malpractice [on the F-35], and we’re still struggling with that to some degree. So we’re not going to do that with NGAD.”
Kendall also singled out excessive concurrency — which occurs when an aircraft moving through development and into procurement at the same time, which can make it harder to fix problems discovered in testing — as a major problem that hindered the F-35 program.
There will be some concurrency on NGAD, as well as the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, Kendall said. But he said the Air Force plans to do that “in a rational way, that doesn’t take excessive risk.”
Kendall said he wants the government to have much more control over NGAD than it does with the F-35. In addition to ensuring the government has access to the intellectual property it needs, Kendall said the Air Force will make sure NGAD’s manufacturer and subcontractors use modular open system design. That will allow the Air Force to bring in new and different suppliers as it seeks to upgrade parts of the system, he said.
The Air Force’s program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, who is now Brig. Gen. Dale White, will be in charge of the new program, Kendall said.
With NGAD expected to be a very expensive proposition — Kendall told lawmakers in April 2022 he expected each aircraft to cost multiple hundreds of millions of dollars apiece — the Air Force won’t be able to afford working with multiple contractors on the program, Kendall said. The service plans to choose a single contractor to build NGAD sometime in 2024, with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman expected to compete for the program.
Kendall also said the acquisition strategy for collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) is moving forward in parallel with NGAD, and the Air Force is working with several potential suppliers to create autonomous drone wingmen associated with that concept. He said it’s too soon to say how many vendors the Air Force plans to work with, but that he wants “as many as possible.”
He declined to describe how CCA capabilities might compare to crewed fighters, saying that information is classified.
Kendall said NGAD’s origins date back to the Obama administration, when he in his previous role as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics asked the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to study what the Air Force would need to ensure it could dominate the skies in a future war.
DARPA’s response, Kendall said, was that the service didn’t just need a lone fighter — it needed a “family of systems,” also encompassing weapons, connections to assets in space, and possibly autonomous drone wingmen.
Kendall then launched a program called the Aerospace Innovation Initiative to start to develop technologies that would form the core of a sixth-generation fighter. That effort led to the creation of experimental prototype aircraft, which Kendall called X-planes, to flesh out those technologies and prove they can work.
Advancements in model-based systems engineering and digitalization also made it possible for both government and contractor design teams to work together much more efficiently, he said.
That’s what’s happening now with the offices developing NGAD, according to Kendall, with government designers and bidding companies essentially working side-by-side at Wright-Patterson. Government designers have direct access to the databases companies are using to design their pitches for NGAD, he explained.
“Everybody lives basically in the same design laboratory, if you will, so we have intimate knowledge of what the competitors are doing in their design,” Kendall said. “We’re very involved with them. … We’re going to have as integrated and as fully integrated a design process and contracting process as possible.”
This is a more efficient approach than how acquisitions were run in the past, where the contractor would deliver “piles and piles of documents” to the government to sort through. “Now you don’t wait for documents, you can see the design firsthand,” Kendall said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.