Air Force brings software to the forefront for next-gen air dominance

Air Force brings software to the forefront for next-gen air dominance

NGAD concept artwork

The Air Force has already determined that the replacement for the F-22 Raptor will not be a single aircraft, but a portfolio of next-generation capabilities to deal with warfare in a contested environment.

Today, according to Pentagon leaders, to achieve air dominance by the end of the decade, the service must focus from hardware to software development.

The Next-Generation Air Dominance program – known as NGAD – revolves around building a new sixth-generation fighter aircraft with an unknown number of manned and unmanned systems within its ranks.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently announced that the fighter – which would be similar to the F-22 or F-15EX Super Hornet – has entered the development phase.

But the manned fighter may not be the keystone of aerial dominance, according to a new report from the Hudson Institute. Without unmanned systems and sensors for situational awareness, a manned fighter “would be unlikely to deliver more than an incrementally improved version of today’s fighters,” the report said.

“As sensors and anti-aircraft missiles are easier and cheaper to advance than manned aircraft, anything advanced manned NGAD aircraft could provide would be ephemeral and evolve them to stay ahead of the opponents would likely be unapproachable and late,” according to the report.

The strength of NGAD will come from combining the power and flexibility of manned and unmanned systems and their associated sensors in what is called “teaming”.

“It’s the idea of ​​a sports team, where each member of the team is born, grows and develops independently of the other members of the team,” said Bryan Clark, principal investigator at the Hudson Institute and co – author of the study. report, said during a panel discussion. “They come together in a particular formation to direct a series of plays. They can then split up and form different formations on the road or even join different teams.

That partnership and cohesion comes down to building and integrating better software, Kendall said. The autonomous capability needed for unmanned aircraft is made possible by artificial intelligence.

It’s a capability race the Air Force doesn’t want to lose, Kendall said.

“I won’t say anything you don’t know about software. It’s hard. But nonetheless, I think we can achieve a significant level of initial capability,” he said at a recent Air Force Association event.

Earlier this year, Kendall announced seven “operational imperatives” for the Air Force. The third is to “define the Next Generation Air Dominance system of systems.”

An operational imperatives team is working toward that goal to develop new combat concepts using collaborative fighter jets alongside a manned fighter, said Timothy Grayson, special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force.

“In each of these teams there is an operations manager as well as a capabilities manager, and it is to be able to iteratively design new combat concepts at the same time that we are looking at new capabilities,” he said. he said during the Hudson Institute panel.

The road to developing and acquiring the necessary software will be long, but it starts with changing the culture of the service, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown. Jr.

It might be hard for the service to accept that some capabilities will never be completed, he said at a recent Hudson Institute event.

“You don’t have a ribbon cutting for software or a ceremony like you would for a plane as it unfolds because it’s always being updated,” he added.

Accepting a new way of doing business is necessary, and industry can help. Defense companies can help facilitate culture change by partnering with the Air Force to build an open systems architecture, Brown added.

“It drives competition for mission systems that, as long as they match the form factor, the size of the black box, you can scale it very quickly,” and any company can do that, said he declared.

Meanwhile, leaders have recognized the need for change, but progress has been slow.

The family of systems approach that NGAD uses was called out years ago, said Mike Holmes, a retired Air Force general and senior adviser to the lobbying firm Roosevelt Group.

He pointed to “Air Superiority 2030,” an Air Force study published in 2016. She warned there would be resistance to the traditional approach of taking 30 years to build a super-advanced platform.

He found this approach to be too slow and too expensive, he said. Another study soon after found that a balance between manned and unmanned systems and onboard and onboard sensors would be key to air dominance.

“The combination of these two things has left the Air Force and Air Combatant Command with a desire to pursue a family of systems and sensors and connections that can be acquired in new and different ways in order to meet timelines. “, he said during the panel.

One of the key differences for the program office that supports NGAD is that staff can start purchasing sensors and payload capability independent of platforms, Grayson said.

Mission systems can be purchased “in coordination with the platform and what the platform needs, but not everything is done through a single contract and a single supplier. It’s a vertically integrated thing,” he said.

Communication between systems that need to work together is something the Air Force struggles with perhaps more than other services, Grayson said. The service needs “linking capabilities,” which include technologies like communication relays that help bridge the gap between platforms and the information they need.

The program office plans to build on work already done on the Advanced Combat Management System, or ABMS – the Air Force’s contribution to the Joint All Domains Command and Control Project which aims to connect sensors and shooters.

“I don’t necessarily want to own every data link in a program like ABMS, but I need to be able to talk to all of them, or at least most of them,” he said. “While I might have a tactical datalink being developed within a platform program office, I need a way to connect and interact with that, as well as create possible relays and gateways that can connect with other things.”

Next-generation software needs can boil down to certain fundamentals of battle management or software-defined nodes of battle management, he said. Multiple program offices can work together to create solutions that provide these fundamentals so that they are interoperable on the platform.

“I have to know what my tasks are. I know what assets I have, I know how to prioritize those tasks, assign them to assets, and send commands,” he explained.

A new approach to acquisition could also change the way the service trains, said Dan Patt, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies and co-author of the NGAD report. In a typical program, fighters trained to be ready for a specific platform when it was delivered.

If rig and sensor types aren’t set in stone before training, it can be difficult to train with this variability in assets, he said during the June panel.

To help overcome the uncertainty, the Air Force could create positions for a combat aviation “geek squad,” Grayson said. They could also provide mission setup support, he added.

“We have the closest thing to that today and things like software engineering groups…but that’s really a new specialty that we really need to start thinking about building support for that kind of operation,” he said.

The family of systems is a different strategy from the system of systems, he noted. Significant program failures within the Department of Defense have occurred because requirements limited the program to one vendor and one set of requirements, he said.

“You can’t predict with that level of precision that you need to define that system of systems, so somewhere in between are patterns that are maybe hybrids that achieve that vision that we’re talking about,” said- he declared.

Ultimately, the new acquisition approach could promote innovation, Patt said.

It’s different from the modularity of the F-35, he said. If the Air Force decides they want something new for the plane, “there’s a map you can override,” but you still had to define that map’s interface in detail from the get-go.

“What you’re talking about here is really a much more flexible model. You keep that fluid, you keep it in the software to allow for changes along the way. That sounds really exciting… if we can pull it off, that seems like a powerful ability.

These abilities won’t come cheap. Kendall told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that the NGAD would cost “several hundred million dollars” per plane.

The 2023 budget request included $1.7 billion for the program, including $133 million for research, development, testing and evaluation. The service even requested reductions of more than 30 F-22 Block 20 aircraft to transfer more funds to the NGAD.

All of the Air Force’s planning for the next-generation aircraft assumes that Congress will follow, which isn’t guaranteed. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the program’s high costs and the gap between the fighter jets it could produce, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

“Historically, programs that have seen significant growth in development costs, such as the F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit, have seen reduced aircraft counts,” noted the military capabilities and programs analyst. John R. Hoehn in the report.

An example of legislative hesitation is Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I’m always reluctant to put a lot of chips in the middle of the table when you’re not sure, and the NGAD seems like a bunch of chips going to the middle of the table,” Smith said of the defense. journalists recently.

However, Kendall said the time for experimentation is over.

“Some of our medium planes are 30 years old, and we have planes that are not at all suitable for high-end combat,” he said. “The people who manage and operate these planes are doing a fantastic job. We are very proud of them. But we’re going to have to move on to the next generation.

Topics: Air power