Air Force Keeping F-16s, Not Moving Toward Fighter Derived From MR-F or T-7 for Now

Air Force Keeping F-16s, Not Moving Toward Fighter Derived From MR-F or T-7 for Now

DAYTON, Ohio—With upgrades, F-16s can serve as a numbers-builder in the combat air forces until the 2040s, and it’s not necessary to launch its successor yet, program officials said at an industry conference.

“We anticipate hundreds of F-16s in active service for decades to come,” meaning into the 2040s, Col. Tim Bailey, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s F-16 program manager, said in a press conference at the Life Cycle Industry Days.

Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said much of the recent service-life extension program (SLEP) work on the F-16 has bought years of additional life for the type, and he’s gotten no instructions to start work on its successor, which USAF has dubbed the “MR-F” or “MR-X,” for a future multirole fighter.

White also said there’s no requirement passed to AFLCMC to evaluate the Boeing T-7 as a possible successor platform to the F-16.

The MR-F first showed up in planning documents in 2021 that indicated the Air Force was looking to an F-16 successor in the mid-2030s. The documents suggested the aircraft sought would not be intended as an all-up, very stealthy jet, but what Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. characterized as a “fifth-gen-minus” fighter, for which affordability, and not necessarily high-level survivability, would be a key requirement.

Former head of Air Combat Command retired Gen. James “Mike” Homes suggested that an armed version of the Boeing T-7 trainer could be adapted to such a role and also serve as an export fighter for partner countries lacking the funds or expertise to operate and maintain a more complex aircraft.  

But “I have nothing in the mix with requirements from ACC to pursue that,” Bailey said of the MR-F and T-7 derivative.

The Air Force last year laid out its future fighter force structure, necking down from seven fighter types today to “4+1,” in which the F-22, later replaced by the Next Generation Air Dominance system, is one; the F-35 is the second; the F-15E/F-15EX are the third; and the F-16 is the fourth—with the A-10 as the “plus one” set to phase out in 2030. The service posited the clean-sheet MR-F design or T-7 derivative as succeeding the F-16.

“The 4+1 is still the strategy,” White said, “and there has been talk about the MR-X. We do what the requirements folks tell us. It’s good to have options.”

White said it’s “a healthy thing” that the Air Force has the F-35 and F-15EX in production for itself and that Lockheed Martin is still building F-16s for the international market. Technology created for the latest F-16s can be inserted into the Air Force’s existing F-16 aircraft, he said, noting that a major radar upgrade for the jet was “actually paid for by Taiwan.”

“While I don’t have any firm requirement” for an F-16 replacement, “I know the MR-F piece is going to continue to be looked at, because at some point we’ll have to have a replacement” for the F-16.

He said the MR-F for now resides with ACC’s program planning shop.

The F-16 is structurally healthy and can continue to serve, Bailey said.

The service life extension program now largely complete, “for a few million dollars per jet, gives you 20 years of life,” Bailey said.

“The F-16 provides the capacity in our Air Force: lots of fighters to cover all kinds of combatant commander needs,” he said. However, “it has to be relevant. Not just the F-16 of today.”

White said F-16s are being fitted with active electronically-scanned array radars “as fast as we possibly can,” saying this modification is underway “at nine different bases” and the F-16 depot at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The radars expand the sensing range of the aircraft, the number of targets it can track, and the modes with which it can prosecute ground targets.

The jets will also get “a host of other upgrades: EW (electronic warfare) kind of things,” which, along with the radar, are the “big mods” being done on the fighter, White said.

The F-16 entered Air Force service in 1978 but has been modified over the years with more powerful engines, radars, self-protection systems, and nearly every munition the Air Force fields.

Additional upgrades depend on the capabilities available across the fighter enterprise, White said, and any upgrade to the F-16 could be costly because of the numbers of the aircraft.

“There are … almost 900 F-16s in the Air Force … Any mod becomes an expensive mod when you have that many airplanes,” he said. “So, we’ll see. See what it takes.”

Future upgrades may borrow from the foreign military sales “side of the house,” he said, wherein USAF can apply upgrades that F-16 customers are adding to their new or existing jets.

Most of the Air Force’s F-16s will also eventually wear the “Have Glass” finish, which substitutes a new radar-absorbing coating for the jet’s traditional gray-on-gray paint scheme.  

Asked if the Air Force has F-16s available for potential transfer to Ukraine, White said “the needs of Ukraine today are being met with the systems you see being exported to Ukraine—HiMARS, etc.”

Ukraine has “other needs” as well, and “a few years down the road … some of those could involve fighter aircraft,” he said.

Requirements for KC-Y Likely in Fall; Analysis of Alternatives for KC-Z Set for 2024

Requirements for KC-Y Likely in Fall; Analysis of Alternatives for KC-Z Set for 2024

DAYTON, Ohio—The Air Force’s nascent KC-Z program, aimed at developing a next-generation family of systems for aerial refueling, will look to launch its analysis-of-alternatives study in 2024, years earlier than originally planned, a top acquisition official said Aug. 11.

Originally, the analysis of alternatives for the KC-Z was set for “maybe in the 2030s,” Paul Waugh, program executive officer for mobility and training aircraft, told reporters at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, however, directed that work on the next-gen tanker start much more quickly, “​​so we moved it to the left,” Waugh said.

That work will now begin in 2023, Waugh said, as the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center teams with Air Mobility Command on “pre-analysis of alternatives,” followed by the official analysis the next year, helping to “inform where KC-Z, the whole family of systems, goes,” Waugh said.

Waugh’s characterization of KC-Z as a family of systems follows on a request for information issued by AFLCMC that referred to a new Advanced Aerial Refueling Family of Systems program. That RFI emphasized technologies like survivability, autonomy, and interoperability, and Waugh echoed the RFI in stating that the tech developed for KC-Z could eventually make its way onto the rest of the tanker fleet.

“Some of that technology may make its way into KC-Y or KC-46, or KC-135. It just depends on what it is and where it’s at,” Waugh said.

Bridge Tanker Timeline

The state of KC-Y, also referred to as the bridge tanker, has been hotly discussed as of late, as Kendall has said several times now that the likelihood of a competition has gone down for the refueler that will “bridge” the gap between the KC-46 and KC-Z.

“As we look for requirements, look further out, the requirements start to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design,” Kendall told reporters in March.

However, Kendall has also couched his comments by saying that a final decision will be made after the Air Force finishes formulating its requirements and conducts its due-diligence market research analysis.

Waugh indicated that those requirements could be coming soon.

“We’re waiting for the requirements to come out from the Air Force. So, Air Mobility Command, the lead command for the mobility side of the enterprise, is working the requirements with the Air Force staff to get them finalized and then put into the [Joint Requirements Oversight Council and Joint Capabilities Integration Development System] process,” Waugh said. “And then [they will] come out, which we think will be sometime in the fall—we don’t really get a good idea of when they’re going to come out, but sometime in the fall.”

In the meantime, the AFLCMC has been conducting “some background work,” Waugh said, including issuing a request from industry for input “from the two prime contenders”—Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

While Boeing has indicated it plans to essentially re-enter its KC-46 for the program, Lockheed Martin has teamed with Airbus for what it is calling LMXT, a modified A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport.

At the Farnborough International Airshow in July in the United Kingdom, Erin Moseley, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for strategy and business development for aeronautics, told reporters the company’s expectation is that “we’ll have the opportunity to compete fairly.”

Based off the responses and data provided from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, AFLCMC was able to start work on a business case analysis for KC-Y, Waugh said. And that analysis will “help inform an acquisition decision after we have a set of requirements.”

The analysis will be updated after the requirements are officially released, and a final acquisition decision will follow a few months later.

“If we get a set of requirements in the fall, then the acquisition decision would be sometime in probably the spring of next year, the spring of 2023,” Waugh said.

Air Force Contemplates Reorganizing Software Factories; Kessel Run Looks to Expand

Air Force Contemplates Reorganizing Software Factories; Kessel Run Looks to Expand

DAYTON, Ohio—The Air Force’s network of software development teams has grown prodigiously in recent years, with 17 software factories, three software engineering groups, and two enterprise services spread across the U.S.

Now, however, USAF is reconsidering how it wants to organize those teams—having them work more closely together or possibly even consolidating them—as the principles behind them such as agile DevSecOps become more widely accepted across the service. 

“The first intent was to consolidate the software engineering groups at Hill, Robins, and Tinker [Air Force Bases], and then in some way for that consolidated wing to have a relationship with the other software factories as we know them. That conversation is ongoing,” Steven Wert, program executive officer for the digital directorate, told reporters at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference.

As part of that conversation, “working groups [are] being established in different components, things like acquisitions and personnel and resiliency, for example,” said Col. Richard Lopez, materiel leader for the Air Force’s original software factory, Kessel Run.

“So you have different working groups, composed of different players within the ecosystem that are informing how the factories work together and collaborate together,” Lopez added.

Just how far-reaching those conversations will go or how long they will last, however, remains unclear, Wert said. Air Force Materiel Command has taken the lead on the process, which Wert described as a “bit confusing.”

“There are several well-known software factories like Kessel Run, and then there are others that are much less well known,” he said. “And then there are simply programs that are executing agile DevOps because it’s the right way to be doing software, and then they’re not known as software factories. So it’s not clear the extent to which this initiative … impacts various organizations.”

On top of that, there are considerations of how much the Air Force should rely on its software factories to develop capabilities versus simply buying and using commercial software. When Kessel Run first began in 2017, the Pentagon was notoriously slow at purchasing software, with technology often becoming outdated before the lengthy acquisition process was complete.

Against that backdrop, developing software in-house could be faster. But DOD has taken steps to try to speed up acquisition, introducing the Software Acquisition Pathway in 2020.

Kessel Run has already transitioned to using that pathway with its main customer, Air Combat Command. But the factory is also starting to buy commercial services itself, with applications such as C2IMERA.

“For the most part, the larger part of our portfolio uses a lot of internal development, or has historically used a lot of internal development, because Kessel Run started out as an experimental, government-led software development organization,” said Rodriguez, who took command in late June. “As we scale and expand, and as I’m further integrating into the program, what we’re doing is really taking a good look at the requirements that ACC gives us and then we make ‘buy versus build versus rent’ decisions so that we make sure that whatever it is that we’re delivering provides the best value for the warfighter.”

As the very first and arguably best known software factory, Kessel Run has already developed multiple applications that have seen real-world impact. In addition to C2IMERA for reporting, planning, force generation, emergency management, and command and control monitoring and execution, the factory has also developed KRADOS, which allows planners to build an air tasking order from anywhere using automation and advanced software.

KRADOS was first deployed to the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in early 2021, with early operational uses following at the 609th Air Operations Center. Recently, the system reached another milestone.

“Over the last week, we have delivered to our test organization a version of KRADOS [minimum viable capability release] that has achieved parity with TBMCS … the current system that’s being used,” Rodriguez said. “So the next step is to complete a final assessment with users at the actual AOC at Al Udied to determine … where that then becomes a system that the warfighters at the [Combined Air Operations Center] are using.”

Elements of KRADOS have also been used at the 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, “primarily for visualization purposes and not necessarily developing the [air tasking order] and the airspace control order,” Rodriguez added, and the goal is to expand KRADOS so that it replaces the current system, the Theater Battle Management Core System (TBMCS), across the entire AOC enterprise.

First, however, KRADOS must undergo an assessment at the 609th AOC, split between Al Udied and Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. Teams will deploy to those bases to start that assessment in September, Rodriguez said. After that, it will be up to ACC to make a final call.

New Cost Estimate to Upgrade and Operate Boneyard-Bound F-22s Due in September

New Cost Estimate to Upgrade and Operate Boneyard-Bound F-22s Due in September

The Air Force will have an estimate of what it would cost to upgrade 33 Block 20 training F-22s to operational configuration by mid-September, and it will likely be “a tremendous number,” Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, told reporters at an industry conference.

“We’re working closely with Lockheed” Martin to deliver the new cost estimate, and it should be ready “in the next 30 days,” White said at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 12.

In its fiscal 2023 budget request, the Air Force asked Congress to allow it to retire 33 Block 20 F-22s, which are used for training and aren’t up to the current 3.2B Block 30/35 operational configuration. The House, in its version of the defense bill, has instead directed the Air Force to upgrade the jets to operational configuration, in order to provide more combat capacity.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Senate in May that such an upgrade would cost about $2 billion, or “about $50 million apiece.” However, White said that number was based on a 2019 estimate.

“We’re in the process of validating that, and seeing what’s changed, if anything,” White said. “We don’t have the data back.”

“We have looked at this over the years,” he added. “This is a very different time in terms of supply chain” and inflation.

White said he fears that Congress doesn’t appreciate that simply upgrading the jets wouldn’t be the whole story.  

“When you say, ‘bring it up to a certain level,’ you’re talking about bringing it up to the level the Raptor’s at today,” he explained. “And that costs X amount of dollars. When you think about where the Raptor is going from here to the end of the decade, though, there is a lot of capability development there.”

He continued, “So now, not only do you have to bring it to where it is today, you also have to carry those 33 jets [forward] with the combat fleet” as well. “Now you have a capacity issue.”

This is “the one thing that does concern me,” he said. If the 33 Block 20s in question are to stay “with” the rest of the fleet, “I have 33 additional jets I have to do sensor enhancement on,” as well as new low-drag pylons and other new capabilities.

Air Combat Command recently released concept art of F-22s flying with stealthy fuel tanks and unexplained slender, stealthy-looking pods under the outer wings, which experts have speculated could be an electronic warfare or infrared search-and track systems, or possibly both.

One of White’s F-22 program staff also noted that the funds to operate the 33 jets was taken out of the budget and the savings applied elsewhere. If they are restored, “we have to put that O&M (operations and maintenance funding) back in, to keep those healthy” he said. Something else would have to be cut to do that.

Congress has asked the Air Force to provide an estimate of the cost to bring the 33 jets up to operational currency. The Senate, in its version of the defense bill, has enjoined the service from doing anything that would reduce F-22 capacity.

Air Combat Command has looked at increasing the number of all-up F-22s a number of times since 2010, but former ACC commander retired Gen. James “Mike” Holmes told Air Force Magazine in June 2020 that the expense consistently knocked it out of consideration when measured against other, higher-priority projects.

“Tradeoffs have to be made” about “the best place to spend your counterair dollar,” Holmes said at the time, and upgrading the older Raptors never quite made the cut.

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, head of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said upgrading the training F-22s is “an affordable way” to add “another squadron of fifth-generation capability and capacity” to the Air Force’s dwindling fleet, which he said is planned to shrink by 1,000 aircraft over the next five years. Taking them out would reduce the deployable Raptor fleet to 100 aircraft, and of those, only a third would be “in the fight” at any given time, with another third in maintenance and another refueling and re-arming.

USAF Already Considering the Future of Combat Search and Rescue After Cutting HH-60W Buy

USAF Already Considering the Future of Combat Search and Rescue After Cutting HH-60W Buy

DAYTON, Ohio—While the Air Force is keeping a seemingly optimistic outlook about the future of its MH-139 Grey Wolf fleet, despite problems receiving FAA certification, another of the service’s helicopter programs is being prematurely curtailed—and officials are already considering what might come next.

As part of its 2023 budget rollout, the Air Force announced plans to cut its total buy of the HH-60W Jolly Green II at 75, instead of the originally planned 113.

That cut, leaders said, was made in response to a changing threat environment, but it raised some concerns in Congress, where lawmakers have included language in several different spending and authorization bills asking for reports from the Air Force.

In particular, the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee stated in its markup of the 2023 spending bill that the cut called into question “the strategic underpinning” of the Air Force’s acquisition decisions.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, included a provision in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a briefing on “plans to satisfy the combat rescue requirement with United States assets should the Air Force’s program of record be truncated short of the inventory objective.” The House Armed Services Committee also included language that would require the Air Force to “conduct a study on the requirements for the Air Force combat search and rescue mission.”

Neither the spending bill nor the 2023 NDAA has passed Congress or become law yet, but work on those very questions is already being done as the Air Force considers the future of combat search and rescue, said Edward Stanhouse, deputy program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and special operations forces.

“The team is looking at a variety of technologies, in that exploration mode right now, from … [amphibious to] potential applications of some of those unmanned applications. A lot of work, a lot of conceptual work, I think has to be done in that area to do the proof of concepts,” Stanhouse said. “But primarily more kind of quick-moving aspects, potentially dual-use.”

“You may have seen the Air Force’s look at high speed vertical takeoff and landing aircraft … but also can something like that fill the need for something that can keep up with a fighter aircraft escort? Helicopters don’t do that very well. We tend to drag them down. So we’re kind of looking at that range of possibilities. ACC is looking at the requirement set right now. Air Combat Command has combat rescue in its portfolio, so they are looking at the range of concepts, and then they’re talking to AFRL and industry.”

In addition to Air Combat Command, Air Force Special Operations Command has already proposed a demo flight of an amphibious MC-130J, a special ops aircraft that can be used for infiltration and exfiltration. And the service’s experiments with electric vertical takeoff and landing have yielded several new milestones in recent months.

More USAF ‘Operational Imperatives’ Likely Coming

More USAF ‘Operational Imperatives’ Likely Coming

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall distilled the services’ top fighting priorities into seven “operational imperatives” chiefly as a mechanism to identify the spending transitions needed in the fiscal 2023 budget. But they are likely to persist, and more—on electronic warfare, cyber and munitions–may be added as the Department of the Air Force continues to scrutinize the capabilities it will need to deter or win a fight with a peer competitor, service leaders said at an industry conference.

“I believe that [the operational imperatives] will be enduring,” Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter said at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference in Dayton, Ohio, “because they are focused on operational problems that aren’t going away.”

However, if the DAF changes the “operational designs” of the future force, “that will have impact on the OIs,” Hunter said. Adding more OIs, Hunter later told reporters “is under active consideration.”

The seven OIs are: Space Order of Battle; Operationally-Focused Advanced Battle Management Systems; Moving Target Engagement; Tactical Air Dominance; Resilient Basing; Global Strike and Readiness to Deploy and Fight. USAF leaders list them in order of priority and they have become so intrinsic to service planning in the last few months that they are even referred to by number, such as “OI5.”

“There’s room…for some movement over time, across Administrations and perhaps within Administrations, on how we think through exactly what those operational problems are,” Hunter said in his keynote speech. Some, though—moving target indications in denied areas—will be needed “no matter what kind of operation” is prosecuted.

Being able to operate a B-21 “family of systems” in denied areas, for example, will be an imperative because of the necessity of the deterrence mission, “in any kind of strategy.”

The OIs will be enduring, too because the service combat leaders were heavily involved “in every stage” of creating the OIs: “in their selection, and in the way they were framed.” Operators and acquirers and technologists co-led each OI team, Hunter noted, so the best expertise was called on to develop them.

But “stand by,” he added, because “with the operational success of the imperatives that we have,” more may come up.

Even as the seven were being solidified, “we had three mission area reviews going on: one on the [electronic warfare] portfolio, one on munitions, and a third on cyber, which kind of overlapped on…the other OIs,” as well.

“So, there’s almost no element of the portfolio that isn’t in the game,” he said. “They may not be officially an OI, but we still assume that it’s there.”

The systems now being pursued “are all imperative to winning a fight…over the next decade,” Hunter asserted. “And there will probably be additional OIs that we’ll work on as we go into the [fiscal] ’25 cycle. There’s more to come. But those first seven, I think, were very well chosen.”

The seven OIs were picked not just by Kendall but “as a collaboration” between him, “the Chiefs, the operational community and the acquisition community.” While Hunter named the three he thinks might be added, “it’s got to be a collaborative process” that nominates more.

The push behind the OIs was to “stop waiting,” Thomas Lawhead, assistant deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements told attendees.

It’s been apparent for several years that the “pacing challenge”—China—has been increasing the “range…lethality…capacity” of their weapons and “most importantly, the ability to achieve their wartime objectives regardless of what we do. That’s the ‘overall imperative,’ if you will, of all the operational imperatives.” It was time to “stop waiting” and face reality, he said.

The OIs are a response to increasing risk, he said. Those risks are to “the ability to maintain our space superiority…being able to gather, mobilize and deploy forces where and when we need to….the ability to generate the number of combat sorties we have to generate to deny their objectives, and we’re increasing risk of getting to and fighting in that highly-contested environment.”

These risks “are unacceptable,” Lawhead said, because without facing and surmounting them…we lose. The reason we do this is to win.”

The OIs all represent “gaps…or deficits” In USAF’s capabilities today, or in the near future, Lawhead said.

He cautioned, though, that “even ‘winning’ is not a good thing,” and described the casualties and “decades” of economic catastrophe stemming from a war over Taiwan, even if the U.S. managed to prevent China “from seizing its objectives” there. The U.S. would lose aircraft carriers and nearby airbases, “and all the people on them,” as well as Army and Marine Corps fighting formations… “and that’s a ‘win,’”

Far better, he said, to convince China at all times to decide “not today,” he said. This, he said “is the sense of urgency Secretary Kendall has given us,” and the thinking behind the OIs.

“Because the force that wins” in that scenario “is also the force that deters,” he said, “and we would like to never have that fight.” The OIs are “aligned” with the Joint warfighting Concept, the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Planning Guidance, he said.

Hunter and Lawhead both said the OIs will be “iterative,” and are aimed at getting capability as fast as possible, enroute to a more assured superiority in the future. Hunter said USAF will accept more risk, both in a technical sense and in the sense that a long reach for a new capability “may end up” costing more. He also said the combatant commanders will also be consulted to see if, after asking for “a 15” of some measure, “and we tell them they can have a 12, is that still worth it to them?…And they nearly always say yes, they’ll take a 12.”

Lawhead said “we’ve tested the future fighting concept [and the] future force design to see if it actually wins” in the Joint Warfighting Construct.

Air Force futurist Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote “led the globally integrated wargame” Future Force ’22 in the spring.

“We found that…when we are able to fight an all-domain fight with our allies and partners, that wins that scenario, of denying our adversaries their objectives,” Lawhead said.

Asked by Air Force Magazine when the next tranche of OIs might emerge, Lawhead said that since the original seven were a “sprint to the 2024 POM” or program objective memoranda, any adds will likely come in the run-up to the next budget.

“That ‘sprint’ nature of the OIs, while focused initially on the ’24 POM, will continue on. We’ve made a downpayment  on the operational imperatives but the…work will continue,” he said. It will be folded into “multiple other capability planning efforts.”

Lawhead noted that since the OIs were drafted, only one significant change has occurred, and that is that “we’re going to take an operational pause” on collaborative aircraft attached to the B-21 family of systems. Kendall has said that on further reflection, developing very-long range unmanned aircraft isn’t a top priority at this time.

Instead, the B-21 focus is on the weapons it will carry, Lawhead said; “what are the right effects we need [from it] and when, and how best to use the B-21.” But the B-21 itself is needed, to be survivable and bring “a volume of fires” to heavily-defended targets.

Industry needs to understand that the OIs are not just a blueprint for the objective force of the future, Lawhead warned.

“We need to be ready tomorrow…We as requirements professionals, you, as industry and acquisition professionals and logisticians,” Lawhead said. “

“We must…build to the best capability we can in the next few years and then continue to work through those capability development plans, those roadmaps, via acquisition strategies and appropriate requirements documentation, to get us to the future force that actually fights and wins.” These will be “spiral developments” of increasing capabilities.

He added that “this is not a one and done. These are living documents, we’ll continue to work on capability development plans.”

Air Force Looks Beyond AETP for Engines to Power NGAD Fighter

Air Force Looks Beyond AETP for Engines to Power NGAD Fighter

DAYTON, Ohio—The Air Force’s Adaptive Engine Transition Program is demonstrating and maturing key technologies, but it won’t produce the engines that power the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, a key acquisition official said Aug. 11.

That engine will come from the lesser-known Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion program, which is still in its preliminary stages, John Sneden, director of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s propulsion directorate, told reporters at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference.

“On the NGAD side, [we’re] kind of looking at how do we provide options for just generally speaking the next generation of air dominance?” Sneden said. “That is what the Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion program is out there to do, is actually look at how do we provide that next-generation propulsion capability?”

On that front, things are going well, Sneden said, with a key milestone coming in the near future.

“Right now, the program is doing very well, [with] preliminary designs coming through later this year. And as we take next steps, we will see prototyping and testing in the years to come,” he said.

The two engine-makers that are part of AETP—GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney—are also taking part in NGAP. And with preliminary designs coming, the Air Force is poised to make a call between the two in about two years, Sneden said—sometime in late 2024.

“Their approach to AETP is slightly different, [with] different technical solutions, one for GE, one for Pratt & Whitney,” Sneden said. “We’re seeing the same thing on NGAP.”

“There’s two unique technology approaches, and that’s important,” added Matthew Meininger, the propulsion directorate official in charge of NGAP. “We want that to be a hard decision. … It’s resource constrained in FY [2024]. So at this point, based on the resources that are there, we have to make a hard decision to pick one moving forward.”

As a program, NGAP has reportedly existed for several years now, but its funding was not separated out from AETP in budget documents until fiscal 2021, making it a mostly secretive effort. And despite the associations between the two programs, Sneden stressed that the engines to come out of NGAP will not be the same ones from AETP.

“This program does leverage off the technology that we’ve done in AETP, but it is a brand-new system beyond what you see in AETP. So [it’s] different in design,” he said.


So where does that leave the two engines built as part of the Adaptive Engine Transition Program—GE’s XA100 and Pratt & Whitney’s XA101? According to Sneden, that’s a question that will be answered by the Office of the Secretary of Defense when it decides whether it wants to pursue putting AETP engines on the F-35.

Such a question has been hotly debated in Congress, within the Pentagon, and among industry as of late—GE is pushing for the XA100 engine to be put on the F-35A and F-35C, while Pratt & Whitney, which makes the F-35’s current F135 engine, has argued that the service should instead opt for a smaller “block upgrade” it is calling the F135 Enhanced Engine Package.

Part of Pratt & Whitney’s argument has been that the AETP engines were not designed to fit on the short-take-off-and-vertical-landing F-35B, and the Joint Program Office has stated that any partner in the program that wants to make its own modifications has to bear that cost alone.

All the same, Sneden argued that the cost would be justified by the increased performance.

“You can optimize for performance, or you can optimize for tri-variant commonality,” Sneden said. “We think the warfighter deserves the performance attributes that AETP can deliver.”

That increased performance would take the form of 25 percent increased fuel efficiency, 10 percent more thrust, and 100 percent better thermal management, Sneden said. GE officials have cited those same figures in arguing for the XA100, but Sneden clarified that those totals could also be achieved with Pratt & Whitney’s XA101.

Should OSD decide to proceed with putting the AETP engines on the F-35, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center would be ready to move the program into a engineering and manufacturing development phase by 2024 that would “likely be five to six years” and include flight testing, Sneden said. All told, the engine could start being put on F-35s by the end of the decade.

Should Pentagon leaders decide to stick with the F135, however, the AETP engines’ future would be uncertain at best. 

The program was “built around the requirements for the F-35,” Sneden said. “So it’s not something that we kind of ported over and said, ‘Oh, you know, we could potentially go use this for F-35. It was actually developed specifically for the F-35.”

That stands in contrast to previous indications from the Air Force that the AETP engines would be the ones to power the future NGAD fighter. Now, Sneden said, the advanced propulsion industrial base faces a pivotal moment: If AETP doesn’t result in an engine going into production and only one engine is selected for the NGAP program in 2024, competition will dry up, he argued.

“If we end up with one vendor there and we don’t move forward with AETP, that vendor could actually get us into a place where we have essentially a reduced advanced propulsion industrial base,” Sneden said. “So we are concerned about it.”

After Yearlong Delay, MH-139 Ready for Military Utility Testing

After Yearlong Delay, MH-139 Ready for Military Utility Testing

DAYTON, OHIO—After months of unexpected delays, the Air Force’s MH-139 Grey Wolf is set to enter military utility testing within the coming month, a service program officer said.

The Air Force first announced flight testing of the Grey Wolf, intended to patrol the service’s sprawling intercontinental ballistic missile fields, in February 2020, and the service was hoping to declare initial operating capability by 2021.

Those plans were delayed, however, when the helicopter ran into trouble getting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification. As a result, the Air Force’s planned purchase of eight helicopters in fiscal 2021 was delayed, and the buy in fiscal 2022 was skipped completely, the service announced in June 2021.

The FAA certification process has moved slowly since then, but a number of key supplemental type certifications were approved recently, Joe Lask, deputy division chief of helicopter programs for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, told reporters at the Life Cycle Industry Days conference Aug. 10.

“We have actually completed our first three subtype certifications as of last week,” Lask said. “So one, two, and three are all done, which clears our way to start that military utility testing we talked about in the past, where we exercise our military capabilities that we put on this aircraft, so it’s no longer an AW139—it’s an MH-139.”

That testing will begin this month, Lask said, expressing optimism that the program is starting to make progress again.

It’s an optimism the Air Force has backed up with budget plans to buy five of the helicopters in 2023 and 80 in total, a figure that is largely in line with the 84 initially planned. The service has also announced its selection of Joint Base Andrews, Md., as the fourth location to receive the Grey Wolf, after Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.

Still, a recent Government Accountability Office report faulted contractor Boeing for “overstating the stability of the design” of the helicopter and warned that the company “has not submitted some contractually required data on time.” On top of that, the GAO report states that “given the design instability, there are risks that later design changes could result in significant rework of aircraft already in production and retrofit of aircraft already delivered.”

Richardson: Digital Design Is Making Old Review Processes Obsolete

Richardson: Digital Design Is Making Old Review Processes Obsolete

The era of “three-day critical design reviews” of Air Force programs may be ending with the advent of digital design and development methods, Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, told attendees at an industry conference.

Speaking at AFMC’s Life Cycle Industry Days in Dayton, Ohio, Richardson said digital design is “changing everything,” including the lengthy processes of advancing programs to their next milestone.

“This is completely transforming how we’re doing systems engineering,” Richardson said of the new technology. Delegating decision-making to “the lowest level” and having a constant, up-to-date digital model or twin of the system that all interested parties can review will likely “end these cataclysmic, three-day critical design review events where I’m at a table with all these drawings—like I’m supposed to notice if there’s [something] missing. C’mon. That’s no way to do business.”

Design reviews “I think are going to eventually become a thing of the past because they happen all the time; every single day. We’ve got programs that are doing this now, where we have design reviews happening as a normal part of the workday.”

Richardson said “we’ll probably still have something like a CDR where people like me go and give it the stamp of approval, but really, it’s been going on the entire time.”

Also wiped out will be the contract data requirements list, because they’ll be no need for “waiting for something to plop on my desk … the CDRL is happening all the time. And so the schedule” is being updated all the time.

“It’s a mind shift,” he said, and he is strongly encouraging all AFMC people involved in contracting to take training in the technology, but not enough are yet doing so, he said.

The same thing is happening with testing, he said: There’s “traceability of test verification,” and “if we do the models right, we can actually do more virtual-world testing and less real-world testing.”

All this translates to faster manufacturing, Richardson said, pointing to the example of Boeing’s T-7 trainer, which went together “with an 80 percent reduction of labor hours. It’s just fantastic.”

He also admonished contractors that “if you’re in the defense industry, you need to start examining how that might change your manufacturing operations.”

Richardson said he “loves” that digital technology is “pushing a lot of manufacturing off the critical path, and it expands the industrial base. If you’re a small business, these sorts of methods allow you to play in a much larger way.” Manufacturing can be “moved off premises and get more sources involved.”

The benefits are “just so pervasive,” Richardson said, adding that he can’t think of any “cons.”

Richardson said his audience should take away from the conference the understanding that digital materiel management “applies to new systems” such as the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program, and the T-7 trainer but also applies to “our legacy systems, like B-52 commercial re-engining or F-15EX. We’re not digitizing the entire aircraft in those cases, we’re digitizing the parts” that are coming in for improvement or change “in a larger way.”

However, for small modifications, “frankly, this doesn’t make sense. I’m not trying to say this fits everywhere. But if it’s a moderately-sized [modification], this is important, and we should be doing it,” Richardson said.

He challenged the defense industry to “get on the bus, or you’re going to get run over by the bus.”