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.
"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.' "
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?' "
"[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."
"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.
"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."
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.