WASHINGTON — Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall unveiled part of his strategy for procuring a next-generation fighter for the Air Force and Navy in congressional testimony last week.
The core of the strategy, Kendall told members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), is called the Aerospace Innovation Initiative.
"What it will be is a program that will be initially led by [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. But it will involve the Navy and the Air Force as well," Kendall said. "The intent is to develop prototypes for the next generation of air dominance platforms, X-plane programs, if you will."
The initiative will also include work on a next-generation engine, Kendall said, adding that more details about the plan will appear in the fiscal 2016 budget request being unveiled this week.
Whereas the F-35 joint strike fighter was billed as one plane that can fit the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marines, the next-generation fighter will instead be two planes that share common parts.
The Navy and Air Force have offices looking at a next-generation fighter that would replace the Navy's F/A-18s and the Air Force's F-22s, respectively. An Air Force official told Defense News in September that he hopes to have Milestone A acquisition activity started in fiscal 2018.
The 6th generation initiative will be a "fairly large-scale" program, and one that Kendall said was designed with the industrial base in mind.
"The only reason the department's doing that is to preserve the design teams that can do this next-generation of capability in that area, because once those design teams go away, we've lost them and it's very hard to get them back," Kendall said in response to a question by HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chair of the HASC.
"In very specialized areas, like you mentioned electronic warfare, that's a very special skill set and you can't develop somebody who is an expert at that overnight; it takes time," Kendall continued. "And you get that expertise by working on programs, by developing new cutting-edge things."
Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, said the emphasis on protecting design teams is smart, especially as other major programs are winding down.
"There are a lot of people working diligently on the Long Range Strike-Bomber. When that decision is made [in the spring], that will let go of some people," he said, adding the future of the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike program is also unclear. "People can only be kept so long without a contracting path. At its essence, it really gets down to preserving these design teams that will dissipate."
Timing will be a key question with the initiative, Callan said. If the program takes 10 years to develop a prototype, it is much less effective than if this Initiative is targeting a five year window.
What other specialized technologies might be involved in a 6th-generation fighter are unclear, but there may be some hints in comments made by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work at a Jan. 28 Center for a New American Security event.
Work said that upcoming budgets will feature funding lines to invest "in promising new technologies and capabilities, including unmanned undersea vehicles; sea mining; high speed strike weapons; an advanced new jet engine; rail gun technology; and high energy lasers."
The announcement of the initiative could also be a warning shot at Lockheed Martin, the whose F-35 is just now gearing up to go operational. If the company doesn't keep costs down on the program, Callan said, the Pentagon could consider moving future funding for F-35 procurement over to this next-generation system.
"I think by injecting some alternatives back into the mix, at the very least Kendall is going to have a pricing tool," Callan noted. "He has to keep Lockheed on its toes, because Lockheed obviously wants to keep F-35 as relevant as it can, so they'd better keep coming up with good ideas for future software releases, for continuing to drive down the airplane's cost, and just make it relevant."
It is assumed that Boeing and Lockheed are working on concepts for sixth-generation, while Northrop has confirmed it has teams assigned to developing a new design. Interestingly, Northrop's setup mirrors that of the initiative, with coordination over shared systems but two teams assigned to developing a pair of different designs.
Paul McLeary in Washington contributed to this report