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:: September 2020 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Prototypical Prototype Fans,

It’s a wonderful thing to welcome a brand new aircraft. This month, a new plane was revealed: Air Force acquisition chief Dr. Will Roper revealed the existence of a full-scale prototype, now in flight testing, developed under the service’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. This was possible, according to Roper, with digital engineering. “With digital engineering, everything is sooner. So, if you get it right, everything is faster, cheaper,” Roper told Breaking Defense. Roper advocates a new Digital Century Series, a rapidly created series of electronically-designed combat aircraft built in relatively small (~75) numbers, with ~15 year service lives.

Also this month, DoD announced that aircraft designed with digital engineering would receive an “e” designation, led by Boeing’s eT-7 (as distinct from the E-designation, which means electronic combat, as in EA-18G or EF-111). All of this e-talk brings out my inner Luddite. Actually, it’s not so inner. Here’s a few e-points about the NGAD prototype and related e-topics:

1. A prototype doesn’t mean much in terms of new aircraft timing. Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) may be a significant step forward, but CAD/CAM was a bigger step. It’s been a long time since something was designed on vellum. And even with CAD/CAM there has always been a big gap between prototype and service entry. Twelve years passed between the YF-22’s first flight and first F-22 deliveries, and almost ten years between the X-35 and first F-35 deliveries. These were designed with pre-MBSE techniques and tools, but then again in ten or 15 years MBSE could be obsoleted by a completely new set of techniques and tools.

From the other direction, the pre-CAD/CAM F-15 and F-16 saw just two and five years (respectively) pass between first flight and service entry. The XB-52 and YB-52 first flew in 1952, with the first B-52A delivery in 1954. As AeroDynamic Advisory’s Kevin Michaels told me, “It’s strange that in the era of digitization, aircraft design and development has become slower.”

Also, consider Boeing’s 787, which was originally known as the 7E7, due, in part, to the same goofy marketing technophilia that the Pentagon displayed this month. The Dreamliner’s e-credentials were unquestioned. Yet the gap between first flight and service entrance was longer than anything else in Boeing history.

2. A prototype doesn’t mean much in terms of funding requirements. This NGAD prototype reportedly cost around $1.7 billion. That’s what a prototype costs. It then takes another $10-20 billion to mature the design, create the necessary systems, and get it service-ready.

3. A prototype doesn’t change the DoD’s fighter acquisition challenges. Assuming that the above points are correct – that it still takes well over $10 billion and well over ten years to bring it to service – then the Century Series concept makes no sense. Each new type would be a huge investment in time and money, with little payoff in terms of deployable warfighting capabilities.

4. A prototype may be a misuse of resources. New aircraft prototypes usually test out new airframe ideas, like stealth, or swing wings, or STOVL. There’s not much new to learn with airframes, compared with putting the cash into improving new systems: radars, engines, EW packages, weapons, etc. Improved systems and weapons would seem to offer better bang for the buck relative to a new prototype aircraft.

And if this NGAD prototype is just a new airframe with old systems, that’s the “old wine, new bottles” cliché. Like the early Eurofighter or Rafale prototypes, or Russia’s first T-50/Su-57 prototypes today, this would be a mere first step in a long road, as the new air vehicles waited many years for the new enabling engines, radars, and other systems to become available.

I’ll make one big e-exception to this: the NGAD prototype could be a new jet that rectifies a big mistake made in the US’s Fifth Generation programs. Old joke: the F-22 is a great air vehicle in search of a great mission equipment package, while the F-35 is a great mission equipment package in search of a great air vehicle. If this NGAD prototype is really the start of an acquisition program that leverages F-35 systems into a faster, more capable, longer-range aircraft, that’s fantastic. But that’s a new acquisition program, and not the start of a new Century Series.

5. A prototype doesn’t change much about the fighter business. There are three or four US companies that can build an airframe, put engines in it, and add a few systems. Back in the mid-1990s, before it acquired McDonnell Douglas, Boeing started creating the X-32, even though the company had never built a jet fighter, and was far from ready to build one. Creating a production-standard jet, and fully integrating necessary mission systems and weapons, is a far more complex set of tasks, and a far more expensive one. Not many companies can do that now.

And companies are getting leaner in terms of capabilities. In fact, Boeing this month announced that it’s closing its NeXt future concept design activities unit. The company also implied that there was a question mark over several other forward-looking design units and investments, including Aurora, Wisk, and Aerion. That’s a lot of e-cost-cutting. So, dreams of using a Century Series type program to keep design teams intact, and competition going in the industry, may have little hope against corporate downsizing.

6. That last point is worsened by funding uncertainty. NGAD has received several billion dollars so far. With a flattening budget topline (at best) and many competing Air Force investment priorities, it’s not at all clear that this program will continue. We might just be left with a museum-ready prototype.

So, predictably, I have my doubts about this e-revolution. But there’s a looming test of my judgement. If the eT-7 avoids the huge losses I’d normally associate with a program that was bid at a curiously low price ($9.2 billion, when the Air Force T-X should-cost was $16+ billion), then I’ll admit I was wrong. If that happens, I may even admit that this NGAD prototype is the harbinger of great digital things to come. I guess we’ll see.

Yours, ‘Til The eF-24 Goes Public,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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