US Air Force Will Shift to Building Many Small Batches of Next Generation Fighters

The US Air Force is looking to shift to just making multiple next-generation technology fighters. They will not endlessly hone requirements for some super fighter that would be built in 25 years. The Air Force would rapidly churn out aircraft with new technologies.

The vision is that every four or five years there will be F-200, F-201, F-202 and each plane focused on different technologies. Some would focus on integrating artificial intelligence capabilities and another could be with a maximum arsenal.

How Does the US Air Force Get to This Promised Land?

Three industrial technologies enable a Century Series approach for NGAD (Next Generation Air Dominance) and will set requirements for participants, Roper said.

1. Agile software development — a practice where programmers quickly write, test and release code, soliciting feedback along the way from users.

2. Open architecture is a system with plug-and-play hardware. NGAD will be fully open, with interchangeable hardware and the ability for a third party to develop software for the system.

3. Digital engineering is the most nascent and possibly the most revolutionary technology enabler. While aerospace engineers have used computers for decades to aid in the creation of aircraft, only recently have defense companies developed 3D-modeling tools that can model an entire life cycle — design, production and sustainment — with a high level of accuracy and fidelity. The process would allow companies to not only map out an aircraft in extreme detail, but also model how a production line would work using different levels of manning or how maintainers would carry out repairs at a depot.

“You could start learning so much before you ever bent the first piece of metal and turned the first wrench, so that when you did do it for the first time, you already have learned. You’re already up to a level of proficiency that in the past you would have to be in the 100th aircraft to have,” he said. “And then if you kept going and you modeled the maintenance, then you could go after the part of the life cycle that constitutes the 70 percent of what we pay.”

The Air Force is requiring Northrop Grumman and Boeing to use the digital engineering technique to develop their respective versions of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

In May, Paul Niewald, Boeing’s chief engineer for the T-X program, described how the company crafted its digital T-X design with such precision that parts could be joined without shims — the material used to fill in gaps between the pieces of an aircraft — and only one master tool was needed during the plane’s production.

This will be shift to making new air vehicles at perhaps less investment in new weapons, radars, sensors, communications gear or other enabling technology. However, there will be rapid integration and testing of new weapons in new vehicles.

In total, Boeing was able to reduce by 80 percent the manual labor needed to manufacture and assemble the aircraft, Niewald said.

The Small Batch Next Generation Plan

Roper revealed to Defense News his thinking for how the program might work:

* At least two manufacturers on contract to design a fighter jet. These could include the existing companies capable of building combat aircraft — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — as well as new entrants that could bring a unique technology to the table.

* Each company creates a hyper-realistic “digital twin” of its fighter design using advanced 3D modeling. Run simulations of how production and sustainment could occur, hypothetically optimizing both and reducing cost and labor hours.

* Award a contract to a single fighter manufacturer for an initial batch of aircraft. Build about a squadron’s worth of airplanes per year, or about 24 aircraft. There would be options in the contracts for additional batches of aircraft. Air Combat Command leadership says 72 aircraft — a typical Air Force wing — would be a viable amount for normal operations.

As production starts the Air Force would start the next competition. They could have two to three generations of planes every 10 years.

SOURCE- Defense News
Written by Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com

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