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Sure, rapid prototyping sounds great, but could it work?
The United States’ premier 5th generation stealth fighters, the F-35 and F-22, still have many years of life left in their wings. But, both the Navy and Air Force are already drawing up plans for their 6th generation stealth fighters. While the Navy is likely to use a conventional acquisition strategy similar to how the F-35 was acquired, the Air Force is looking back to the future.
Next Generation Air Dominance
The 6th generation aircraft program, called the Next Generation Air Dominance program, will use a strategy of extremely rapid prototyping and testing. The goal? To draw up, refine, and manufacture a new class of fighter in less than five years.
The rapidity with which the Air Force hopes to adopt their new fighter stands in stark contrast to the lengthy F-35 acquisition process, which spanned more than a decade from inception to entering service—and was the most expensive American weapon system ever. But, the Air Force has a plan.
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The Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Dr. Will Roper, is a tech nerd, and proponent of the so-called “Digital Century Series.” The name hearkens back to the dawn of the jet age, when the United States put the Century Series jets through rapidly prototyping and into service. (Some of the notably unsuccessful Century Series fighters were the F-101 Voodoo and F-102 Delta Dagger.)
Roper would like the Air Force to develop many small batches of jet fighters using the best technology currently available. Similarly to the original Century Series, America’s aerospace manufacturers would compete for contracts with the expectation that the resulting fighter is inexpensive and the best available at the time of design and manufacture. These contracts would be issued every three to five years and ensure that fighters are continuously being improved by integrating new designs and technology in nearly real time.
But there are some detractors.
One of the chief worries has been the logistics involved in keeping a myriad of jets supplied not only with fuel but also with weapons. Though Roper says the Digital Century Series approach would strive to keep as much commonality between platforms as possible, the jet’s differing capabilities could create logistical complexities.
Training could be spotty. Currently, the United States Air Force can offer the world’s best pilot training, as the characteristics of current airframes are known and in some cases have enjoyed decades of improvement. Small batches of more expendable airframes may prevent deep, thorough pilot instruction.
Lastly, interoperability between allies and service branches may be difficult to achieve. Unlike the F-35, which has been widely distributed between the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and allies abroad, political buy-in may be a hard sell and cause the Digital Century Series costs to balloon.
Roper does deserve credit for trying to bring down the Air Force’ acquisition costs. Innovation in acquisition is a great idea. Let’s just hope the challenges it could face are not insurmountable.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.