Air Force Working Closely with New-Jet Designers, Secretary Says
Service engineers are “living in the same design space” as the two companies doing NGAD development, Frank Kendall said.
The two defense firms involved in the Air Force’s highly secret new fighter-jet project are working closely with program engineers at the service’s design-and-development hub in Ohio, service secretary Frank Kendall said Monday.
The Air Force has “intimate knowledge” of both companies’ early-stage work on the stealthy Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, aircraft, and has “separate teams working with each of them,” Kendall told reporters Monday during a Defense Writers Group event.
Kendall said he visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, home of the NGAD program office, where he saw a government engineer “working directly with one of the two contractors. He was on one of the teams and interfacing with them on the design.”
The Air Force “is living in the same design space” as the companies. “They have direct access into the database that’s being used for the design,” he said.
The secretary did not specify who the contractors are, or what he was looking at—just that there were two contractors.
Service officials announced last week that they will pick a builder for NGAD in 2024. The solicitation release “formally begins the source selection process” for NGAD, according to last week’s statement, but the actual solicitation sent to companies is classified “to protect operational and technological advantages.”
The identities of the companies doing development work on the U.S. military’s first sixth-generation fighter remain under wraps. Lockheed Martin (F-35, F-16) and Boeing (F/A-18, F-15) are the only two U.S. firms that currently build fighter jets. But Northrop Grumman, which builds the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider bomber, is a major supplier to both, providing parts for the F-35 and F/A-18.
Kendall said the NGAD program won’t repeat a “serious mistake” it made with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: allowing a contractor to retain ownership of the technical data rights. Lockheed Martin has such rights for the F-35 program, and that has given the company a significant amount of power to manage sustainment costs of the aircraft.
“I spent years struggling to overcome acquisition malpractice. We're still struggling with that to some degree, so we're not going to do that with NGAD. We're going to make sure that the government has ownership of the intellectual property it needs,” Kendall said.
The new fighter jet will have a modular design so the Air Force can bring in new suppliers and have a “tighter degree” of control over the future of the program, he said.
“It's been a real struggle with the F-35, quite honestly. It's not just about the prime, it's about the subs too, who are just as interested in maintaining their business position as anybody else's. We hope we've learned that lesson and are applying it effectively in NGAD,” Kendall said.
NGAD is set to replace the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter that is considered one of the best air-to-air combat jets ever built. The F-22 can fly at supersonic speeds without using an afterburner and has thrust-vectoring engines giving it more maneuverability than prior-generation jets.
The origin of the new fighter goes back to the Obama administration when the Air Force asked DARPA to conduct a study on air dominance, Kendall said.
“That was a fairly lengthy study that produced an answer that said what we needed for future dominance was a family of systems. It's not just the platform. It's the things around it and the things that support it. It's the weapons. We talked about its connections to space, potentially. It's a number of things, including the possibility of introducing uncrewed aircraft,” he said.
Near the end of the Obama administration, Kendall began a program called the “Aerospace Innovation Initiative” to develop sixth-generation technologies needed for future air dominance and build experimental prototypes, or “X-planes,” to “bring those technologies forward,” he said.
“We ordered that contract, I think, in 2015 and that produced experimental prototypes that have verified, validated, [and] proved out the technologies that we set out to acquire and so those are the bases for the NGAD program going forward,” Kendall said.
The Air Force has requested $1.9 billion in research and development funds for the NGAD project in its 2024 budget request sent to Congress earlier this year.