A blast from the past: Will a 1950s concept provide a model for America’s NGAD?


The first four of the century series to fly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, when the test base was the hub of developmental testing activity in the mid-1950s; the North American F-100C Super Sabre, the McDonnell F-101A Voodoo, the Convair F-102A Delta Dart and the Lockheed F-104A Starfighter. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

EARLIER THIS year, the Air Force budget request to the Congress included $1 billion in research and development funding for Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). Air dominance is an Air Force core competency and one that is widely considered under-resourced. When the fleet of F-15C Eagles reach the end of their service lives, likely in the mid-2020s, only 187 Lockheed Martin F-22s Raptor stealth fighters will have air dominance as their primary mission. While the F-22s are planned to remain operational to 2040 and beyond, it was not just the Congress that was vitally interested in the questions: What comes next? What will we get for a billion dollars? And more billions in subsequent years?

The Air Force could not provide answers to these questions, at least not ones that could be repeated outside of classified briefings. The Congress, dissatisfied, halved the funding request. Influencing the Air Force and Congress alike was the necessity of not having NGAD developed in a programme with a scope similar to that which developed the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which took 26 years from programme start to initial operational capability and cost many billions of dollars. With US defence strategy increasingly dominated by a need to counter the great power threats that did not seem credible during the years the F-35 was being developed, there is not the time – or money – available to do NGAD the same way.

While, despite having completed an extensive analysis of alternatives study of NGAD, the Air Force has not provided a detailed picture of what it is setting out to develop except in the most general terms. A flexible yet robust network will link sensors, shooters and multidomain command and control.

This, by itself, is nothing new; the first-ever version of a networked air combat capability enabled Royal Air Force fighters and Army anti-aircraft guns to defeat the Luftwaff e in the Battle of Britain some 80 years ago. The challenge to the Air Force is how to provide the capabilities needed for this networked battle quickly, with limited resources (especially money) and to make sure it will work.

Dr Will Roper, Chief of Air Force acquisition (holding a model airplane) watches a demonstration about Air Force training simulation on cyber threats. US Air Force

That the Air Force sees networks rather than aircraft – manned or unmanned – or weapons as what NGAD is primarily about has been stated repeatedly for over a year by decisions-makers from Chief of Staff General David Goldfein on down. When the Air Force announced on October 2 that the Program Executive Office (PEO) for the NGAD was being established at Wright Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, it was no surprise that its head, Colonel Dale White, came from the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance PEO, where he had worked on networking multiple, diverse platforms.

Dr Will Roper, the US Air Force’s chief of acquisition, sees a deep connection between the NGAD and the Advanced Battle Management System. The latter will replace the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Standoff Attack Radar System aircraft and its ground station with a capability to network together multiple types of aircraft and ground nodes to provide a coherent ISR capability.

New century series

Rather than setting out the specifics what the Air Force intends to develop to assure NGAD, Dr Roper has pointed to the Air Force’s past to provide a model for rapid development from multiple sources. The Air Force’s original century series developed between 1954 and 1961 were fighter aircraft (designated F-100 through F-110), designed and built (or left on the drawing board) by multiple US aircraft manufacturers.

Speaking in Washington DC on two occasions this year, April 12 and September 16, Roper first set out, then elaborated on, how he believes a new century series could incorporate the same multiple technological advances as the original, and be developed in a similar compressed timeframe.

The new century series approach could apply not only to manned fighters, but also to such potential NGAD elements as unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) capable of autonomous loyal wingman tactics integrated with manned aircraft. Such attritable or expendable unmanned aircraft would be designed for just a few (or only one) mission.

What does Dr Roper see as the elements of the century series that he would like to see applied to NGAD and other Air Force programmes? One of the biggest is rapid prototyping leading to a fly-before-buy approach. He said: “When you can prototype something instead of studying it for years, you get out of the starting gates faster, you learn quicker, you retire risk faster. If your concept is flawed, you get rid of it.” This is consistent with the objective of reviving the culture of experimentation, something the Air Force has been emphasizing for several years.

The McDonnell F-101A, originally designed as a long-range escort fighter, was used as an interceptor in defence of the United States and Canada, but saw its most extensive service modified for low-level reconnaissance. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
F-100A Super Sabre 25778/FW-778 with National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, tail markings, at the NACA High-Speed Fight Station, Edwards, California in 1955. The aircraft was flown from Edwards between 1954 and 1960 to investigate stability and control features of the then new F-100 Super Sabre; as part of the century series development programme. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Roper also stresses how the original century series benefitted from starting less than a decade after World War Two, when the tidal wave of resources thrown at industry had enabled the creation – and post war sustainment – of many teams whose names are now history but back then were designing fighters: North American, Republic, McDonnell, Grumman, Convair, General Dynamics and others. Roper is concerned that the decades-long trend toward consolidation in industry may undercut capabilities for rapid innovation. Speaking in DC on April 12 he said: “We need to shake ourselves and create new sources.”

One thing a new century series would have in common with the F-35 is an underlying assumption that technology changes would allow compressed development timelines. For the F-35, this included accepting a degree of concurrency in development – enabled by networked computer design capabilities – that ended up contributing to delays and cost increases. The multiple technologies that Roper looks to enable a new century series will require concurrent advances in lots of areas, including aircraft fabrication.

Speaking in DC on September 16 he said: “The technologies I am most excited about, are not those changing end-stage warfighting, but those technologies that change how we make things.”

Roper is an enthusiastic and thoughtful briefer. His impact has not been limited to the Air Force. The Army has been listening to what he has to say as it launches the Future Vertical Lift rotorcraft programme. His talks in London have reportedly influenced the programme plan for Tempest. He is also a techno-optimist – like the people that planned the F-35 programme – and says he does not allow negative comments in meetings he is chairing.

Programmes fail and get cancelled all the time. Newspapers are full of easy programmes that are having long-lasting, if ultimately solvable problems (the Boeing KC- 46A Pegasus tanker is a prime example). While the Air Force has been building multi-domain networks for air combat since 1941, when it created its own version of what the British used the year before at Mitchel Field, New York, having an operational multi-domain network is going to be difficult. That network will have to enable offensive air dominance in extremely lethal conditions likely to characterize combat in the 2040s and beyond. It will require greater performance to operate in a combat environment that may be shaped by widespread application of hypersonic propulsion, artificial intelligence, directed energy weapons and cyber weapons. Roper recognizes straight-line incremental development is unlikely to provide an answer. During his September 16 presentation in DC he said: “If left to our own devices, we tend to be a linear service, and build better versions of what we have today.”

The Air Force may have to cut back its current force to pay for its network-centric vision. Speaking of the current force, Roper said on September 16: “We’ve got to have discipline to retire them or else we’re not going to free up enough resources to invest in the future.”

If the Air Force retires systems and the networked future does not live up to expectations, the NGAD capabilities needed to defend the US – and its allies and friends – may turn to smoke.

While Roper has not provided specifics of how he is looking to reduce and mitigate risk in achieving the future he has envisioned, and sees as within reach, the century series as a model that may provide a clue as to what may happen if NGAD does not work out, as he, General Goldfein and others in Air Force leadership believe it will.

In 1960 and 1961, the Air Force realized the century series had not provided a capability for airto- air combat against the high performance fighters of the Soviet Union. Having not developed a fighter that could do this itself, the Air Force was able to close the gap by procuring the McDonnell F-110A Phantom, largely identical to the F4H-1 version then entering production for the US Navy, subsequently designated the F-4 Phantom II. Last of the century series, the fact that the Phantom became the most long-lived and successful was possible because the Air Force was able to turn to the Navy when its own designs did not provide the capabilities it needed.

Today, rather than looking towards an NGAD-like network for the 2040s, when today’s Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets will need replacement, the Navy is still thinking in terms of a sixthgeneration aircraft, dubbed F/AXX, to fill the hangar decks of its aircraft carriers. Because both the Air Force and the Navy are moving away from the F-35’s multiservice solution, a new century series, if it materialises, would be able, like its predecessor, to reach across service lines for a solution to ensure tomorrow’s airpower.