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US Air Force Prototypes 6th-Gen Future Stealth Fighters

US Air Force Prototypes 6th-Gen Future Stealth Fighters

Drone fighter jets, hypersonic attack planes, artificial intelligence, lasers, electronic warfare and sensors woven into the fuselage of an aircraft - are all areas of current technological exploration for the Air Force as it begins early prototyping for a new, 6th-Generation fighter jet to emerge in the 2030s and 2040s.

While the initiative, called Next Generation Air Dominance(NGAD), has been largely conceptual for years, Air Force officials say current “prototyping” and “demonstrations” are informing which technologies the service will invest in for the future.

“We have completed an analysis of alternatives and our acquisition team is working on the requirements. We are pretty deep into experimenting with hardware and software technologies that will help us control and exploit air power into the future,” Gen. James Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Association of the Air Force Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

Part of the progress with the program, according to Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper, is due to new methods of digital engineering.

“I have spent six months with our industry leaders and NGAD team looking at examples of applied digital engineering. I’m impressed with what they have done,” Roper.

Digital engineering, as Roper explains it, brings what could be called a two-fold advantage. It enables weapons developers to assess technologies, material configurations and aircraft models without needing to build all of them -- all while paradoxically enabling builders to “bend metal” and start building prototypes earlier than would otherwise be possible.

“The reward is more than the risk,” Roper said, speaking of the need to “try something different” and pursue newer acquisition methods which at times results in prototyping earlier in the process than the traditional process typically involves.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working with the acquisition community on digital engineering techniques, often explored through modeling and simulation, for many years.

“Digital engineering is another exciting area and we see the opportunity to accelerate the pace of moving things from the bench level of science and technology into a system, integrating concepts into an operational campaign model,” Tim Sakulich, Executive Lead for Implementing the Air Force S&T Strategy and Air Force Research Laboratory Lead for Materials and Manufacturing, told Warrior in an interview.

Current work on a futuristic 6th-gen fighter - to come after and fly alongside upgraded F-35s -- includes development of stealthy drone fighters, hypersonic flight, lasers, new precision weaponry and advanced AI able organize targeting data in milliseconds.

While all of these things are of course key parts of the equation, the Air Force Penetrating Counter Air/NGAD program is equally focused on information exchange itself as a defining element of future war. Such an approach, looking beyond isolated systems and weapons themselves, envisions expansive “networked” combat with war platforms operating as “nodes” in a larger warfare system of weapons and sensors working together in real time.

“This approach is one that views military operations in terms of wholistic elements of an information-shooter-effector complex. That will require a lot more going into the design of the next generation of combat aircraft than how fast and far it can fly - or what the numbers of weapons it can carry,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former planner of the US air attacks in Operation Desert Storm and current Dean of the The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies , told Warrior Maven in an interview.

The NGAD program, which traces its history to the Air Force’s “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan,” envisions the possibility of a “family of capabilities.”

Holmes explained that this study began by examining more than 650 different ideas for 6th-Gen combat, which were then narrowed down to merely a few.

Directed by the Air Force Chief of Staff, service weapons developers who worked on the study have been working in Enterprise Capability Collaboration (ECCT) teams designed to pursue next-generation air superiority.

“We are moving into a future where aircraft need to be looked at as not just elements of their own, but as a system of information nodes - sensor - shooter - effectors. It is about creating an entire system of systems that is self-forming and self-healing with a greater degree of awareness than an adversary can achieve, and a much greater degree of survivability,” Deputla said.

Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works and Boeing’s Phantom Works are all among a handful of industry developers already working on prototype 6th Gen planes and advanced technologies - intended to align with key elements of the Air Force vision. The Air Force itself, while not yet decided upon a particular platform or fixed set of new technologies, is moving quickly beyond the conceptual realm into the active exploration of weapons, sensors, technologies and networks.

“There are maybe two to three companies that can build high-performance tactical aircraft,” Roper said.

Next-generation stealth technology is also of course a large focus of the technical equation. Newer radar absorbing coating materials, improved IR suppressants or thermal signature management, evolved radar-eluding configurations and acoustic reduction technologies offer a window into current areas of developmental focus. A 2013 Essay by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee discusses the evolution of advanced heat reduction technologies built into the “skin” of an aircraft.

“To become low-observable in multiple spectrums, advanced skins manage a plane’s heat distribution to foil radar, infrared, and thermal detection systems. These skins do this by distorting or eliminating heat distribution to restructure its thermal shape. They may also be able to heat up or cool down all parts of an aircraft’s surface to perfectly match the surrounding atmosphere, making it virtually undetectable,” the report, titled “The Future of Combat Aircraft: Toward a 6th Generation Aircraft,” writes.

The Air Force B-21 Raider, a new stealth bomber expected to emerge in the mid 2020s, is said by developers to incorporate a new generation of stealth - but very few details are available. (For Warrior Maven's report on the B-21 and future stealth -CLICK HERE)

Engine development is yet another area of major leap-ahead technological focus, according to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly report. Emerging “Variable Cycle Engines” introduce a third air stream into an engine, which can be controlled by the pilot, the essay explains. The new engines reportedly massively increase an aircraft’s reach, fuel efficiency and speed.

“By opening or closing the third air stream, the pilot can adjust the fuel intake of the jet engine and optimize its performance,” the report states.

Fighter-jet launched laser weapons, expected to be operational by the mid 2020s, are of course part of the planning for 6th-Generation fighters. (for Warrior Maven's Report on Fighter-Jet Launched Laser weapons - CLICK HERE)

Targeting and sensor technology, coupled with advanced guidance systems, are progressing so quickly that ships, fighter jets and land assets can no longer rely upon an existing threat envelope. Simply put, all US military systems will increasingly become more vulnerable as enemies acquire more drones, high-speed fighter jets and longer-range precision weaponry - all enabled by AI-fortified long-range sensors and targeting technology. This includes the emergence of advanced enemy fighter jets, ships, ballistic missiles and weapons such as land-based anti-ship missiles, all further necessitating the need for information and combat awareness in warfare.

The pace of advancement in computer processing speeds, miniaturization and AI also promise to bring new things to air combat. Algorithms able to instantly gather, compile and organize ISR data and perform real-time analytics will bring faster targeting and attack systems to fighters. AI-enabled real time analytics will, for instance, bring an ability to compare new sensor information against vast databases of relevant data in milliseconds.

Information dominance, therefore, could among other things enable a fighter jet to both launch attacks and also function as an aerial ISR node. Operating as part of a dispersed, yet interwoven combat sensor network, a fighter could transmit combat relevant data to air assets, ground-based weapons, command and control centers, Navy ships and satellites.

If a ship, ground or air commander has occasion to see or learn of an incoming attack at greater distance, he or she is obviously much better positioned to defend it. Perhaps, for instance, a medium-range ballistic missile attack is airborne, approaching land based artillery formations or a Carrier Strike Group - what might a Commander do? Should the attack be met with a ground-based interceptor, jammed with electronic warfare technology, hit with a laser or thrown off course in some other way? What if a fighter jet, configured to function as an aerial node in a larger interwoven combat network, were able to detect the approaching attack earlier in its trajectory? From beyond the horizon? Perhaps the jet might itself be positioned to attack, intercept or dismantle the approaching missile - or at least provide early warning to the weapons intended target. In this case, more “time” simply means more options to inform a commander’s decision cycle.

Referring to this emerging tactical complex as a “combat cloud,” Deptula posited that, for instance, an aircraft such as an F-35 could cue or alert an Aegis Navy Cruiser about an incoming attack, therefore offering ship-based radar, fire control and interceptor weapons a vastly improved envelope with which to take out an attack. Thus, an interconnected web of attack, targeting and information nodes can better sustain operations should one node be destroyed, and “sensor-to-shooter” time can be massively accelerated.

“For an adversary, this is a difficult concept to attack,” Deptula said.

Time is of course of the essence when it comes to air attack, air-to-air warfare and any kind of air-ground-surface coordination. Getting ahead of or inside an enemy’s “decision cycle,” is a phenomenon long-described by air warriors as completing the OODA loop - Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action - faster than an enemy, to win a dogfight. This is also one reason why hypersonic weapons are being pursued and tested with such vigor by the US and its major rivals. A weapon, drone or air asset of any kind traveling at five times the speed of sound presents a very serious “time” challenge when it comes to defending attacks.

While the notion of “manned” hypersonic flight is considered to be very far away, hypersonic weapons - to be followed by hypersonic drones - are moving closer to operational status. This greatly impacts the Air Force’s Penetrating Counter Air program because a 6th-generation aircraft might, for instance, be able to fire air-launched hypersonic weapons or launch hypersonic attack drones. It goes without saying that the faster an attack or ISR mission can operate in high-threat or enemy territory, the more its threat window can decrease. (For Warrior Maven's report on Air Force efforts to accelerate hypersonic weapons - CLICK HERE)

Interestingly, anticipated speed and range of enemy weapons and sensors continues to motivate ongoing discussion about whether “dogfighting” itself could become obsolete. Identifying, and potentially destroying an enemy aircraft before being seen is a key premise informing F-35 strategy. While the stealth fighter is engineered to dogfight, its Electro/Optical Targeting System and Distributed Aperture System are specifically designed to enable early detection of enemy fighters. The concept is, quite simply, to destroy an enemy before you yourself are seen, potentially preventing an enemy from coming close enough to require a dogfight.

-- Kris Osborn is a Non-Resident Fellow at The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies --


Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

This artist's rendering from Boeing shows one concept for the Air Force's future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance. (Boeing)This artist's rendering from Boeing shows one concept for the Air Force's future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance. (Boeing)

Source: Washington, D.C. (Defense Maven) By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven | 26 September 2019

Photo: US Air Force Future Fighter Jet. Concept art released by the the Air Force Research Lab in 2018 shows a potential next-generation fighter concept, or F-X. (Photo by © US Air Force Research Laboratory)

The US Air Force’s radical plan for a future fighter could field a jet in 5 years

The U.S. Air Force is preparing to radically alter the acquisition strategy for its next generation of fighter jets, with a new plan that could require industry to design, develop and produce a new fighter in five years or less.

On Oct. 1, the service will officially reshape its next-generation fighter program, known as Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, said during an exclusive interview with Defense News.

Under a new office headed by a yet-unnamed program manager, the NGAD program will adopt a rapid approach to developing small batches of fighters with multiple companies, much like the Century Series of aircraft built in the 1950s, Roper said.

“Based on what industry thinks they can do and what my team will tell me, we will need to set a cadence of how fast we think we build a new airplane from scratch. Right now, my estimate is five years. I may be wrong,” he said. “I’m hoping we can get faster than that — I think that will be insufficient in the long term [to meet future threats] — but five years is so much better than where we are now with normal acquisition.”

The Century Series approach would be a notable departure from the Air Force’s former thinking on its future fighter. In its “Air Superiority 2030” study released in 2016, the Air Force described a long-range, stealthy sensor-shooter called “Penetrating Counter Air,” which would act as NGAD’s central node networked with sensors, drones and other platforms. The Air Force would use prototyping to speed along key technologies in the hope of maturing them early enough for inclusion in advanced aircraft fielded in the early 2030s.

But what Roper calls the “Digital Century Series” would flip that paradigm: Instead of maturing technologies over time to create an exquisite fighter, the Air Force’s goal would be to quickly build the best fighter that industry can muster over a couple years, integrating whatever emerging technology exists. The service would downselect, put a small number of aircraft under contract and then restart another round of competition among fighter manufacturers, which would revise their fighter designs and explore newer leaps in technology.

The result would be a networked family of fighters — some more interrelated than others — developed to meet specific requirements and including best-in-breed technologies aboard a single airframe. One jet might be optimized around a revolutionary capability, like an airborne laser. Another fighter might prioritize state-of-the-art sensors and include artificial intelligence. One might be an unmanned weapons truck.

But the point, Roper said, is that instead of trying to hone requirements to meet an unknown threat 25 years into the future, the Air Force would rapidly churn out aircraft with new technologies — a tactic that could impose uncertainty on near-peer competitors like Russia and China and force them to deal with the U.S. military on its own terms.

Imagine “every four or five years there was the F-200, F-201, F-202 and it was vague and mysterious [on what the planes] have, but it’s clear it’s a real program and there are real airplanes flying. 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?” Roper wondered.

“How do you deal with a threat if you don’t know what the future technology is? Be the threat — always have a new airplane coming out.”

This rendering of a Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft, by Lockheed Martin, shows a tailless stealthy future fighter. (Lockheed Martin)

This rendering of a Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft, by Lockheed Martin, shows a tailless stealthy future fighter. (Lockheed Martin)

How does the Air Force get there?

Three industrial technologies enable a Century Series approach for NGAD and will set requirements for participants, Roper said. The first is agile software development — a practice where programmers quickly write, test and release code, soliciting feedback along the way from users.

The second, open architecture, has long been a buzzword in the defense community, but Roper said industry often uses it to describe a system with plug-and-play hardware. NGAD, ideally, would be fully open, with interchangeable hardware and the ability for a third party to develop software for the system.

The final technology, digital engineering, is the most nascent and possibly the most revolutionary, Roper said. While aerospace engineers have used computers for decades to aid in the creation of aircraft, only recently have defense companies developed 3D-modeling tools that can model an entire life cycle — design, production and sustainment — with a high level of accuracy and fidelity. The process would allow companies to not only map out an aircraft in extreme detail, but also model how a production line would work using different levels of manning or how maintainers would carry out repairs at a depot.

“You could start learning so much before you ever bent the first piece of metal and turned the first wrench, so that when you did do it for the first time, you already have learned. You’re already up to a level of proficiency that in the past you would have to be in the 100th aircraft to have,” he said. “And then if you kept going and you modeled the maintenance, then you could go after the part of the life cycle that constitutes the 70 percent of what we pay."

Few defense programs have used digital engineering so far, Roper said. The Air Force is requiring Northrop Grumman and Boeing to use the technique to develop their respective versions of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

Boeing has also demonstrated the technology with its clean-sheet T-X trainer, taking its design from concept to first flight in three years and beating out two competitors that offered modified versions of existing jets.

During a May visit to Boeing’s production facility, Paul Niewald, the company’s chief engineer for the T-X program, described how the company crafted its digital T-X design with such precision that parts could be joined without shims — the material used to fill in gaps between the pieces of an aircraft — and only one master tool was needed during the plane’s production.

In total, Boeing was able to reduce by 80 percent the manual labor needed to manufacture and assemble the aircraft, Niewald said.

But creating a simple training jet like the T-X is much different than manufacturing a penetrating fighter jet like the NGAD, and there is no proof that those new manufacturing techniques will work for a more advanced aircraft, argued Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

Aboulafia suggested the Air Force might be “overreacting” to the struggles of the F-35, where a “one-size-fits-all” approach and a focus on software and sensors produced a very expensive aircraft that took almost two decades to develop. But a Century Series approach, he warned, could prioritize the development of new air vehicles at the expense of investments in new weapons, radars, sensors, communications gear or other enabling technology.

“With the F-35, we had too much [emphasis on] systems and not enough [on the] air vehicle. Maybe this is going too far in the other direction,” he said. “Isn’t the truth somewhere in between where you have two or three air vehicles but a greater resource allocation for systems? In other words, the truth isn’t the F-35 and the truth isn’t the Century Series. Can’t we just think in terms of something in between, a sensible compromise?”

Rebecca Grant, an aerospace analyst with IRIS Independent Research, expressed enthusiasm for a new fighter design effort, saying that engineers could push out options for a Century Series style effort “extremely quickly.” However, she added that the choice of engine, the integration of its communications suite, and the decision whether to make the platform manned or unmanned would be key variables influencing the design of the air vehicle.

“[A Century Series approach] strikes me that it truly is traditional in a way because this is how it was done in the past. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get to. They want fresh designs. But the difficulty is always as you start to make the most important trade-offs and identify the most important criteria,” she said. “Those become pretty serious driving functions pretty quickly."

A (potential) game plan

The new NGAD program office will determine the final acquisition strategy for the Digital Century Series — including the length of the development cycle, procurement quantities and contracting mechanisms. However, Roper revealed to Defense News his thinking for how the program might work:

  • Put at least two manufacturers on contract to design a fighter jet. These could include the existing companies capable of building combat aircraft — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — as well as new entrants that could bring a unique technology to the table.
  • Have each company create a hyper-realistic “digital twin” of its fighter design using advanced 3D modeling. Use those models to run myriad simulations of how production and sustainment could occur, hypothetically optimizing both and reducing cost and labor hours.
  • Award a contract to a single fighter manufacturer for an initial batch of aircraft. Roper said that industry could build about a squadron’s worth of airplanes per year, or about 24 aircraft. Include options in the contract for additional batches of aircraft. Air Combat Command leadership has told Roper that 72 aircraft — about the number of aircraft in a typical Air Force wing — would be a viable amount for normal operations.
  • While that vendor begins production, restart the competition, putting other companies on contract to begin designing the next aircraft.

As it forms the NGAD acquisition strategy, the new program office will also explore how defense primes would be compensated for their work. Most current Air Force programs are awarded to the company that can provide the most capability at the lowest price, leading to a status quo where vendors underbid to secure a contract and reap profits only when platforms are mass-produced and sustained.

But if a Digital Century Series construct is adopted, the Air Force may pay companies more money upfront during the design phase and require them to produce planes with a shorter design life; for instance, a jet with a lifespan of 6,000 flight hours instead of manufacturing aircraft designed to be kept in the skies for 20,000 hours, Roper said.

"That opens up the opportunities to do things very differently, different structural designs, not doing full-scale fatigue testing and all of things we do on the geriatric Air Force to keep things flying,” he said. “Where is the sweet spot where we are keeping airplanes long enough to make a real difference but not so long that we’re paying a premium to sustain them or not able to refresh them with better aircraft?”

One obstacle to the Digital Century Series approach may be persuading Congress to approve the necessary funding. The House Armed Services Committee already recommended cutting funding for the NGAD program in the fiscal 2020 budget request, from $1 billion to $500 million — a sign that the committee may not be sold on the Air Force’s path forward.

Roper said the idea has generated a “good response” from the congressional defense committees but acknowledged that lawmakers have questions about the approach. He also noted there will need to be a means to pay the bills, particularly in the early stages of the development cycle when multiple companies are on contract to design aircraft.

“I think the theory is sound, it’s the funding required and how big of an industry base we can sustain,” he said. “I don’t want to leave companies out, but I also don’t want to go so big that we fail because of funding, not because of the soundness of the idea.”

Source: Washington, D.C. (DefenseNews) By Valerie Insinna | 26 September 2019

Photo: US Air Force Future Fighter Jet.
Editor Imone Shepherd



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