WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is about to start a deep-dive process that will eventually decide what technologies and capabilities it will fund to ensure air dominance in the world of 2030.
And while that includes the potential for a sixth-generation fighter, top service officials continue to stress that the result of the process will likely be a family of systems approach.
Maj. Gen. Tim Ray, director of Global Power in the service's acquisition realm, and Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, director for Operational Capability Requirements, told Defense News that the Air Force will shortly stand up a team to begin researching these decisions.
The Next-Generation Air Dominance program will be the first pilot program for the Air Force's new Capability Collaboration Team (CCT) structure, part of a broader strategic process unveiled by Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, at last month's Air Force Association convention in Orlando.
The CCT comprises a number of operational, scientific and technical experts from an array of backgrounds, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force Research Labs and the major commands. The group will explore in depth various options that could matter in the future, before putting out a product with two components.
The first is a list of technologies the CCT has decided will be needed for air superiority in 2030. The second is a road map for how to achieve those technologies.
For example, the CCT could decide that directed energy weapons are a key part of the strategy. It will present to the chief and secretary a guide for what areas of directed energy need investment, how those investments should be prioritized, and perhaps most importantly, a timeline for when those investments would need to pay off in order to be fielded by 2030.
Johnson said the goal is to be able to guide limited research and development funds from being spread to many projects — with the hope that one works out — toward being focused on a small handful of technologies.
"It's not about a decision to start a program, to go do x, y and z," Johnson said. "It's not a decision to go build the next-generation fighter. It's a set of decisions about what more do we want to learn, how do we want to learn it, and how fast do we want to learn it? It's 'out of this set of technologies, we want to chase these four.' "
Timewise, the CCT will begin meeting in the next few weeks. It will spend the next three years researching technologies before presenting a final product in 2018.
The Pentagon is littered with well-intentioned studies into new technologies. What makes this different, Ray said, is the focus on finding actionable items and then creating guidelines to make them real.
"This isn't a slush fund," Ray said. "It's not just. 'hey I'm going to go solve cold fusion, give me a couple of years and I'll get back to you.' It's 'how do I get that power supply correct of that kind of pod to do directed energy,' or 'how do I get this signature from this range to that range?' "
For that to work, Ray said, industry must play a critical role. That fits with a promise from Welsh, who in Orlando pledged that industry would be brought in earlier in the technology development process.
"[Right now] you have to wait until we kind of make up our mind and give you a plan, so you can't energize your resources, your thinking, to help us get ahead of this curve," he said at the conference. "We're not talking to you about it. We must do that. You should be part of this transition planning. You should be part of the [process] in developmental planning."
At the same time, Ray warned that industry needs to be prepared for a shift away from the days of one prime controlling everything from development through production.
"We have a lot of known players and we want to hear what they have to say. The interesting part will be if we get out of the program business, how many more voices will we get that aren't the prime players?" Ray asked rhetorically. "Technology is moving way too fast for us to lock down a program and say it's all got to go through one guy."
That may lead to more focus on studying and prototyping technology without a guarantee of future production, Johnson said.
"When I bring industry in here, industry is understandably interested in what the program is going to look like, which is not my conversation at this point," Johnson said. "So I've got to make it workable so when I get ready to do some experimentation or prototyping, that industry is willing to participate in that, knowing that at the end of the day there may not be anything after that."
Rebecca Grant of IRIS Research said opening another avenue of communication with industry is a net positive for the service. And while she said the CCT brings "all the right ingredients" together, she said the service needs to stick with the concept to make it really work.
"The best technology development stories come out of this mix of people and insights," she said. "What we don't know is if you can get everyone together in a room and just [have] the big insights. Like exercise, you need do this on a regular basis and go for the small gains as well."
Mark Gunzinger, a former service official now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, called the CCT a "great idea" that could "help accelerate the transition of new, potentially game-changing technologies into the program of record." However, he also offered a word of caution.
"Beginning these efforts by 'researching new technologies' may take teams down the path of trying to figure out how emerging technologies could help airmen improve how they operate today," he said. "I think it's also important to challenge current operational concepts and think through how new technologies could enable airmen to operate very differently in the future."
Hints of the Future
Both generals stressed that the goal is to allow the CCT to be as open as possible as it explores future concepts.
"We can't be prescriptive. We do have to be open," Ray said. "We have to show them what's going on in the intel community with data management, with cyber, with space, so they can begin to look at the tools and what they mean and the implications of those things. It's a broader exposure."
However, the men did drop a few hints as to what technologies they foresee the CCT considering.
Johnson expressed confidence that the 2030 solution would not involve just the development of a heavily advanced fighter with all-onboard capability, noting "there is every likelihood it's going to be some sort of family of systems, and hopefully it will be a mix of old and new.
"I would have every expectation that it will probably be 'programs' — that's one man's opinion," he added. "Sensors, weapons, the whole collection of things."
That family could include a mix of modernized versions of legacy systems in use today, working hand-in-hand with new systems that will be online by 2030. The CCT will be on the lookout for what Johnson called "quick wins," things like experimental sensor upgrades that could be put onto current systems relatively quickly.
The CCT will also look at how to build in growth for potential future technologies, Ray said, noting "we certainly realize we need to build in more inherent adaptability in what we do."
That includes looking at how to build in excess power and create space for any new system, to make sure there is the ability to add newer technologies as they come along.
The generals casually mentioned directed energy and signature reduction as other technologies that will likely be looked at, which isn't news to anyone who has followed the talk about a potential next-generation fighter.
Grant highlighted directed energy as an area that could really gain from the CCT model.
"The time is right for demonstrating progress in directed energy," she said. "I think all future systems from here on out, we're going to have a discussion in directed energy on those systems. We'll be talking about it a lot more."
While the focus now is on the family of systems, there is confidence in industry that a major part of that will involve a sixth-generation fighter.
The Air Force isn't alone in looking at next-gen air dominance technologies. The Navy has said it is looking at a next-gen fighter to replace the F/A-18 and complement the F-35C, and Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall has launched the Aerospace Innovation Initiative, a DARPA-led development program for X-planes to test technologies and concepts.
Johnson said he is in regular contact with his counterpart in the Navy, and Ray added that the lead Air Force representative to the initiative will also be part of the CCT.
That should create a cross-cutting of technologies between the three sides, including, perhaps, letting the CCT test some of the technologies on a prototype plane, then bring those results back into its research.
Industry, meanwhile, is gearing up for what could be a lucrative contract.
Northrop Grumman has already stood up a pair of teams, dedicated to the Navy and Air Force programs respectively, while Boeing has quietly released several mock-ups of future fighter concepts.
Orlando Carvalho, the head of Lockheed Martin's aerospace division, told Defense News that the company's SkunkWorks division is working on a design, but said that work is a natural outgrowth from the company's previous developments.
"When it comes to next-generation air dominance, that work for us is a continuum," he said. "We don't discretely stand up teams, disband teams around that — that's what we do at the SkunkWorks, and it's a continuum."
Carvalho said the Pentagon has "definitely" communicated with companies about what future threat scenarios, tactics and requirements may be.
Both Ray and Johnson are sympathetic to industry's desire to know what a next-generation fighter may look like, but insist they need this structure to prevent the proverbial cart from leading the horse.
"The automatic question [from industry] is when do we do the AOA [analysis of alternatives]? I don't want to hear about an AOA," Ray said. "I want to do some learning first. I want to know what the alternatives are before I begin to analyze those alternatives. Right now we don't even know what the alternatives are."