Thursday, September 19, 2019

Air Force 5-Year Fighter Production Plan

The Air Force must be reading this blog since they’re copying one of ComNavOps’ posts almost verbatim.  The Air Force wants to build a new aircraft in just five years.  What?!!!  Five years?  How is that possible?  Well, ComNavOps explained how to build an aircraft in five years in a post a couple of years ago (see, “How To Build A Better Aircraft”).

Now, the Air Force is jumping on the bandwagon.  Presumably, the F-35 debacle has scared them to the point of recognizing that the current acquisition process is not viable.

The U.S. Air Force is preparing to radically alter the acquisition strategy for its next generation of fighter jets, with a new plan that could require industry to design, develop and produce a new fighter in five years or less. (1)

Build a new aircraft in just five years?!  Astoundingly, that’s exactly the time frame that ComNavOps put forth.

How will the Air Force accomplish this?  Why, the same way that ComNavOps has repeatedly stated should be done – by building with only existing technology and building in small batches!  To wit,

… the NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] program will adopt a rapid approach to developing small batches of fighters with multiple companies … (1)

Instead of maturing technologies over time to create an exquisite fighter, the Air Force’s goal would be to quickly build the best fighter that industry can muster over a couple years, integrating whatever emerging technology exists. The service would downselect, put a small number of aircraft under contract and then restart another round of competition among fighter manufacturers, which would revise their fighter designs and explore newer leaps in technology. (1)

… instead of trying to hone requirements to meet an unknown threat 25 years into the future, the Air Force would rapidly churn out aircraft with new technologies … (1)

This is exactly the process I’ve called for in both aircraft and ship acquisition.  Stop designing mega-programs that try to future proof platforms (not possible and hideously expensive) and, instead, build for shorter lifespans (see, “Ship Service Life Reduction”) and smaller batches of specialized assets.  The small batches and shorter lifespans allow future tech to be incorporated as it becomes available.  There’s no need to future proof that new aircraft because you’ll be building a new batch in a few years anyway and you can incorporate the future tech then.  This is just common sense on a cracker.

This approach also has the added and hugely important side benefit of keeping more industrial companies current and viable as opposed to the winner-take-all mega-project that ensures we wind up with just one or two companies.

I may have to sue the Air Force for plagiarism!  They are almost literally copying my posts.  Relax Air Force, it’s okay.  I don’t mind if you copy and adopt my ideas.  You should and you have my blessing!

Okay, Navy, the Air Force has seen the light of ComNavOps’ brilliance now what about you?  Get on board!  Let’s start building smaller, specialized ships with 15-20 year lifespans (you aren’t conducting maintenance so they won’t last long, anyway) and no need for future tech concurrency which has proven to be the downfall of the last several ship programs.


(1)Defense News website, “The US Air Force’s radical plan for a future fighter could field a jet in 5 years”, Valerie Insinna, 16-Sep-2019,


  1. This is how we used to do it. Look at the century series. All had strengths and weaknesses even though all were ostensibly designed as fighters.

    F100 instrumental early in Vietnam
    F101 Canadian interceptor into the 80's
    F102 interceptor
    xF103 canceled
    F104 massive export orders
    F105 pivotal strike fighter in Vietnam
    F106 derived from F102 interceptor server into the '80s
    xF107 (based on F100) prototyped
    xF108 (based off the Navys A-5)
    xF109 supersonic VTOL fighter canceled
    xF110 early resignation for the F4 phantom

    Having so many types ensures you don't commit to a dud design. If a design is to ambitious you can cancel it; if combat losses are to much you can retire that fleet (f105)and still have multiple other platforms cover the mission.

    Plus you dnt become beholden to one company.

    1. The only baffling aspect is how we managed to institutionally forget this and all the lessons that went along with it.

      Contrast the Century series (or the WWII aircraft production types) with the mega-F-35 program and we see that ignored/forgot every lesson of aircraft acquisition.

    2. “How we managed to forget...”
      His name was Joseph McNamara, and he also brought us gems like trying to manage the Vietnam War with mainframe computers.
      First he tried to force everyone to buy theF-111 as an all-singing all-all dancing one-size-fits fighter, but nobody was falling for it. Then he took a huge, hulking Naval Interceptor that was solid called the F-4 Phantom. Never a dogfighter, it could at least take advantage of raw power with a good pilot. My dad worked making parts for it until he retired less than ten years ago.
      But this was rejected by actual pilots whose influence led to the F-16 & F-16.
      But the somewhat socialist idea of one winner chosen by bureaucrats had already seeped into the DoD and gave birth to the F-35, an all-Burke Navy etc. but I think it started with McNamara.

    3. Robert McNamara, not Joseph. But spot on with the rest of it.

    4. The large F15 was the replacement for the F4 in USAF, Macnamra was still SecDef up till early 1968 when the FX competition was running which was won by the F15

    5. Arguably, McNamara and, later, Rumsfeld did more to damage the US military than any enemy.

  2. ….according to Wikki, the initial P51 was designed in 102 days...

    1. The Perry was initially designed (first ship designed on CAD) in 19hrs....

  3. This is a positive change...hope the Navy notices!!!

  4. Speeding up with small batches is a good strategy but this comparison to the century series is a bad comparison. For one, many were developed at the same time. Several also had crash rates that no one would accept today. Finally, several were built in the thousands and had short careers. Its like political primary candidates. Some may have the same policy but we know darn well one's reason to do something and their ability to execute on that plan is better than the others.

  5. No need to look back at the Century series. The Fighter Mafia got funding in 1969 and the YF-16 flew in Feb 1974. The YF-17 flew in May 1974. This leveraged David Packard's (one of the founders of HP) push for evaluating prototypes.

    1. About the same time the YA-9 and YA-10 flew off against each other. Another successful program with focused CONOPs, short development times, and mature prototypes.

    2. "Another successful program"

      Yep. We knew how to do this, once upon a time. We've just chosen to ignore the lessons of success because we arrogantly think we know better and no amount of failure is going to dissuade us.

  6. The Navy needs to buy the B-21....

  7. I understand the Japanese may be willing to build/pay for hardened
    shelters. We could put the Raiders in Guam but its far away..

  8. Hopefully this will lead to crazy ideas like an actual dogfighting light fighter, an actual EW plane, an actual dirt-busting A-10replacement etc.

    Where this idea came from is the new T-7 trainer. Boeing used new design software and 3D printing tech to crank it out fast. Whether they can pull that off with say an advanced system is questionable. But put up against Boeing’s own traditional creations such as their new Air Force tanker (which is Not doing well) or their insanely over budget and overtime SLS booster for NASA, the T-7 is impressive so far. Now if Boeing can apply that creation process to their other products, then Lockheed, et al will have to change their ways to compete. IF...many a big company has come up with a winning idea only to have it buried by their own bureaucracy who stands to loose their power.

  9. "the T-7 is impressive so far."

    Hmm … maybe, maybe not. The T-7 has been in development for a few to several years (hard to find an exact start date) and no production aircraft have been delivered yet.

    The T-X replacement effort started back around 2003, though not necessarily Boeing's direct involvement. So, the replacement program is around 16 years old so far and we don't yet have a production aircraft built.

    Yes, there are aspects to Boeing's effort that sound good but bear in mind that everything you're reading is straight from Boeing so it's obviously going to sound great. The bottom line is that no production aircraft yet exist. Now, if production aircraft are delivered in the next week, that will be impressive. If it takes another 5-10 years to deliver, well …

    And then, of course, there's performance. Will it actually do what it's supposed to? The new debacle tanker aircraft were built but performance testing revealed that they couldn't actually do their function!

    So, again, when the first production aircraft is delivered that has proven it can perform its function then we'll evaluate how good the program is.

    By the way, Boeing claims they've reaped huge benefits from computer design but hasn't every aircraft and ship program for the last two decades claimed that and yet none have actually shown any improvement in speed of development or quality? I seem to recall that the tanker was supposed to be computer designed?

  10. The Saab-Boeing then T-X now T-7 design was started 2014 and had first flight 2016, so ~2 years from start to first flight. Currently the project is in the Test and Evaluation phase, the USAF and Boeing/Saab are flight testing the aircraft to prove that the design meets the specs before a production run is started, planed according to USAF data as 350 aircraft.
    So the general idea is according to CNO plan of first test then build.
    If this will work and the the future way of conducting new designs or not only time will tell.

  11. Signs of progress?

    It has been said Boeing/Saab win on the T-X trainer came in $10B below Air Force initial estimate, Boeing insists they did not 'buy in' the contract but used a new approach for product development by adopting an model-based engineering, constructing an elaborate, three-dimensional digital model of the entire aircraft. The model allows engineers to analyze aerodynamic flows and loads, create a manufacturing plan and distribute the design seamlessly throughout the supply chain.

    The computer model-based engineering approach supplying digitally accurate design to suppliers enabled delivered parts fit precisely first time. The first two aircraft were assembled without shims on minimal tooling with a re-work rate of 0.3%.

    Boeing developed the mission and flight computers internally saying its quicker in house than the time/effort of coordinating with traditional suppliers.

    Taking a new approach to software engineering, instead of building up large blocks of software over several months or even years, the functions are broken down into smaller increments that are integrated at the system level every two months, claiming
    reducing software lines of code by 50%. (Saab in the development of their software for the latest Gripen E chose to fully qualify its distributed integrated modular avionics (DIMA) design to commercial standards prior to first flight, likened to a smartphone app, DIMA will enable Saab to swiftly develop and integrate new functions on the Gripen E without touching the jet’s flight critical software.)

    Similar strategy taken by Boeing with the Navy MQ-25 tanker drone, contract award Aug 30, 2018, successfully completed its first test flight yesterday.

    1. I'll repeat … Every ship and aircraft acquisition program in the last two decades has claimed to use computer aided design to cut costs and improve efficiency and yet none has produced any visible savings or improvements. We'll see what happens with this one.

    2. 3D Cad has been around for a while and has been in all aviation work. Model based Systems Engineering uses that is more based on 'Domain Models' for the managing teams and documentation flow.

    3. The ease at which to design with CAD breeds the temptation to make designs more complicated than necessary.

      There is a dying art of making things as simple as possible.

  12. The big roadblock I see is the limited number of manufacturers. Before we had this huge ecosystem of companies to build almost anything. As a nonaviation example we had FMC as the original maker of the AAV. FMC primarily made food grade aluminum stuff. Now with huge amount of procurement regulations it's almost impossible to break into the biz.
    This limits our base for competition. It will be difficult to reconstitute our defense ecosystem.

    1. FMC got into military production , like many companies did during WW2 They continued afterwards with a specialist Ordnance Division which was responsible for the M113 , the M2 Bradley amoung others. The Ordance division was spunoff as United defence and later sold to the UK based BAE

  13. Every new aircraft introduced requires its own simulators, maintence equipment, and spare parts. Plus, a small number of aircraft are needed to train and transition pilots. How is all that managed? Is that equipment replaced every 5 years?

    1. " Is that equipment replaced every 5 years?"

      Yes and no.

      You've partly fallen victim to the misguided air power management scheme. Why do we have simulators? The main reason is because we've cut back on funding for flight hours and simulators are a [poor] substitute for actual flight training. In the past, we didn't have simulators to any great extent because we trained our pilots in the actual aircraft, IN THE AIR! Let's reduce our dependence on simulators and return to actual flying. The Air Force found that as simulator usage increased, so too did mishaps - presumably due to the decreased flight hours. So, there's part of your answer - no, we don't need to build new simulators, we just need to fund flight hours the way we should.

      As far as maintenance equipment (whatever that means - it's a very generic term) and spare parts, yes, there will be come replacement but, if we are wise, we will be using as much common items as possible (ejections seats, O2 supply systems, cockpit displays, and on and on. So, yes, some amount of new stuff will be required but it shouldn't be an overwhelming burden. We managed it throughout the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's.

    2. @Fighting Irish

      Cockpit layouts change very little, so simulators' hardware dosen't change that often. Infact, I believe they're pretty generic just to be able train many different types of fighter aircraft with the software changing the performance parameters of the "aircraft."

      That being said, simulators shouldn't replace actual flight hours.

      As to maintenance equipment, besides very niche needs, most equipment used is commercial grade. As to computer diagnostics, they probably use the same plug connectors with only the software on being different.

    3. CNO "I'll repeat … Every ship and aircraft acquisition program in the last two decades has claimed to use computer aided design to cut costs and improve efficiency and yet none has produced any visible savings or improvements. We'll see what happens with this one."

      Understand your sentiments more than justified by actual recent programs, but the $813M contract for the T-X is fixed price for five pre-production a/c and seven simulators, so risk with Boeing and Saab, not Air Force, as is the Navy $805M contract fixed price for four MQ-25 and Air Force contract with Boeing and Leonardo for the MH-139 helicopters .

      After Boeing taking loss of ~$3.6B on the fixed price contract for Air Force 767 KC-46A tankers think Boeing would have to confident in their new tech paradigm to deliver (claiming not to be 'buying in' contracts) to enter into these new fixed price contracts, or have Boeing board of directors just lost it.

    4. Your ideas Nick backed up by this story

      The principles of no new technology and major systems approach can work cheaply and quickly.
      Im thinking of the forgotten F20 from Northrop , while a single seater, was based on the T38 airframe with a single GE F404 engine. The USAF should have jumped at the chance to use that plane as its new advanced trainer/aggressor in the 1980s

    5. "fixed price ... so risk with Boeing and Saab, not Air Force"

      Unfortunately, 'fixed price' does not mean the same in the defense industry as in commercial industry. Invariably, cost overruns are split between industry and the military even on fixed price contracts. For example, the link below describes how KC-46 cost overruns were split.

      KC-46 Contract

  14. "The small batches and shorter lifespans allow future tech to be incorporated as it becomes available."

    But, then the question becomes: Do I build new aircraft with new technology or upgrade existing aircraft? Fighters and bombers are often upgraded with new engines and electronics to match current and future threats. Plus, future budget constraints might limit funding for new production aircraft.

    At the same time, one of the things that will help most is getting the requirements defined up front and keeping changes, especially to those requirements that drive cost, to an absolute minimum. Rework is costly.

    1. "Do I build new aircraft with new technology or upgrade existing aircraft?"

      Is this a trick question? If you're building small batches of aircraft on a regular basis, you're going to be due for another batch whenever new tech becomes available. So, you'll build the new aircraft with the new tech and, if it makes sense, you can upgrade the older aircraft.

      " keeping changes, ... to an absolute minimum."

      No, no, no. NO. No-no. You've missed the point of this approach. There are NO changes to requirements during a production run. None. Nata. Zero. New requirements get incorporated into the next batch.

      Read the linked post. One of the keys is to lock the requirements so that there is NO uncertainty in the contract. Industry knows EXACTLY what they will build from day one. That's how you establish EFFECTIVE fixed price contracts. This is all described in the linked post. Give it a close read.

    2. "If you're building small batches of aircraft on a regular basis, you're going to be due for another batch whenever new tech becomes available."

      You're assuming, and the Air Force is too, that building small batches of aircraft is a practical approach and that remains to be proven. And, when "new tech" does becomes available, why can't I retrofit my existing fleet? Which is something we routinely do today and may actually be cheaper to do than build new aircraft. Upgrades, in part, is how we've been able to keep the B-52 fleet flying for so long.

      Changes in requirements are a given in any major program, there's just no way around that. You have to manage their impact.

      At the same time, this new approach gets away from the "fly-before-you-buy" approach that gave us the A-10, F-16, F-22, and F-35. Granted, flying prototypes takes time, but they serve to wring out the design and identify weaknesses to correct. Computer models are great and have become very sophisticated, but they don't cover everything.

    3. "You're assuming, and the Air Force is too, that building small batches of aircraft is a practical approach and that remains to be proven."

      It's already been proven. Study your history. Building smaller batches of aircraft more often has been the historical norm. It's only in the last few decades that we've abandoned the proven approach in favor of these mega-programs that turned out badly.

      There's nothing new under the sun. There's only things that seem new because we don't study our history. History is showing us all the lessons we should be following but we arrogantly and ignorantly think we know better than history.

      I absolutely don't mean this personally but you're an example of someone who has probably grown up with this badly flawed acquisition system and now believes it is normal. It is not. It is the historical outlier and is a failed approach. History, history, history. Study it. Learn from it. It's screaming lessons at us if we'll just listen.

    4. "why can't I retrofit my existing fleet?"

      You can if you think it makes more sense. Who are you arguing with? However, it's always less efficient to try to retrofit than the build a new aircraft that has the new tech designed in. The preferred approach is to continue to build new, small batches of aircraft that incorporate the latest tech and, if warranted, retrofit existing aircraft.

      Again, who are you arguing with?

    5. "may actually be cheaper to do than build new aircraft. "

      It would only be cheaper in the very short term. By retrofitting existing aircraft you wind up with the same number of aircraft you had before the retrofit. Using the continuous small batch production approach, you wind up with more aircraft, half of which have the latest tech and the older aircraft can be retrofitted, if that makes sense.

      Your approach leads to old fleets of aircraft of insufficient numbers and inefficient tech. My approach leads to continuously renewed fleets of planes with optimized tech. The choice is really pretty simple and obvious. It's just not the way we've operated recently so people are reluctant to do it, having forgotten that that's exactly how we used to do it.

    6. "Changes in requirements are a given in any major program, there's just no way around that."

      No. Changes within a production lot are the source of cost and schedule overruns. I've already explained that changes are handled by incorporating them into the next batch. It really is a pretty simple system.

    7. "how we've been able to keep the B-52 fleet flying for so long. "

      Read your own statement. Is keeping a hundred year old aircraft flying really what we want? For fighting insurgent goat herders, sure, that's fine but what can a B-52 do in a peer war? Nothing. It's a giant, slow, non-stealthy target that will have a lifespan of minutes over the modern battlefield.

      All of our upgrades have gotten us nothing in terms of a peer war asset. It would have been far better to end the B-52 long ago and build something new and I've described how to do it economically and quickly.

      Now, there's nothing wrong with cycling older aircraft into less demanding roles prior to retiring them but our military is supposed to be capable of the very demanding, high end, peer war and that's clearly not the B-52. So, your own example is badly flawed. It's not your fault. You just don't know a better way and that's why I'm here - to show you the better way - the way that history tells us is better. Now you've learned a better way. Don't reflexively defend yourself. Instead, objectively analyze the two approaches and you'll see the inherent advantages in the small batch approach. You're now a wiser person. You're welcome!

    8. For fighters, when has the "small batch approach" ever been tried? In the past, we've bought small batches of prototypes for ground and flight testing. Often some of those aircraft go on to operational status. And, while we built a variety of Century Series aircraft, we also built each type by the hundreds (F-106) to thousands (F-100).

      Between the F-15, F-16, F-22, and F-35, the Air Force has about 1,750 fighters. Is the intent to replace them 70 to 80 aircraft at a time? If so, that's going to take quite a while. And, how do you handle logistics when each fighter wing is equipped with a different type of fighter?

    9. "For fighters, when has the "small batch approach" ever been tried?"

      You do read history, don't you?

      In the 1920's and '30s we built dozens of different aircraft in small batches. New types were coming out yearly, almost. Then, during WWII, we must have had several dozen different aircraft types. Yes, they were bought in the thousands due to the demands of war but those quantities were small batches on a relative basis and the key point is that we developed SEVERAL NEW AIRCRAFT PER YEAR. Moving on, we developed the initial jets and, again, produced many new types in a matter of a few years. Ancient history and irrelevant, you say? Okay, let's consider the Cold War era where we developed and operated many different types simultaneously. I won't bother listing them - you can search the Internet as well as I can if you don't know the list. It's only been since the introduction of the F-18 Hornet that we've abandoned short run batches of multiple aircraft types in favor of mega programs that were mega expensive.

      That also raises the point about what small batch means. Small is a relative term. A thousand aircraft built during WWII was still a small batch compared to the many tens of thousands of aircraft that were built. Our current mega expensive builds have reduced our numbers so badly that we've come to think that a thousand aircraft is a large buy! It's not. The F-14 was a small buy of 700 or so, for example. The A-6 was a small buy of 600 or so. Even the Hornet, despite being in production for 33 years or so is a small buy with 1400 produced from around 1985 until now. That's an average of around 42 per year - quite a small buy!

      So, when has the idea been tried? It's always been tried until recently!

    10. "how do you handle logistics when each fighter wing is equipped with a different type of fighter? "

      Can you seriously not answer your own question? Until recently, we've always had multiple aircraft types and handled the logistics just fine. Look at the Cold War era air wing compositions, for example.

      You seem to believe we can't do this just because we haven't recently. That's utterly ignoring history.

      You haven't asked a single question that isn't already answered by history. You're arguing with demonstrated history! That's silly. You've become blinded by current practice and can't see what's always been done.

      Our current practice is producing fewer and fewer aircraft that cost more and more. Is that really the path you want to defend and proceed along? For example, in the last 32 years, how many bombers have we built? That's right, one type and only 21 aircraft - in 32 years!!!!! At a cost of a billion dollars or so, each - yikes! How pathetic is that? By comparison, how many different types of bombers did we produce in WWII? How many in the '50s and '60s? That also answers your logistics question.

      Our ultimate fighter, the F-22, we built only 190 or so because they were too expensive. 190 aircraft to go to war with and defend our country. How many tens of thousands of fighters did we build for WWII and now we think 190 aircraft is a good build?

      You're defending a broken system. The real question is why? Are you just knee-jerk resisting any change, as is human nature?

    11. Comparisons to how we built aircraft in the 1920's to 50's is non-applicable. Back then we were just learning to how to build aircraft and an aircraft industry. Many of the aircraft back then were purposely build to test new designs and technologies. As for carrier aviation, towards the end of WWII we settled around Avengers, Hellcats, Coursairs, and Helldivers.

      The development process was reborn in the late-40's and 50's with the introduction of the jet engine, new materials, and electronics. Plus, the science of flight evolved to build supersonic aircraft.

      According to the linked article, the selected manufacturer would build an initial batch of 24 aircraft with options for additional batches. According to article, "72 aircraft — about the number of aircraft in a typical Air Force wing — would be a viable amount for normal operations." This in itself is a preposterous statement as additional aircraft are needed for training and attrition losses. At the same time, there are only three viable builders and the hope of building 72 aircraft isn't going to attract new entrants.

      We don't have a broken system. The F-35, while started with the best intentions, it has become the poster child for how not to plan and execute a major aquisition program. There are many other examples, like the LCS and the Army's Future Combat System. Had the F-35 focused on the CTOL and CATOBAR variants, the program would have been much more successful.

      We've been succesful designing fighters before, with the FJ, F-4, F-14, F-15, and F-16 probably being the best examples. The FJ and F-4 were each multi-service fighters. Variants of each were developed using new engines, electronics, and weapons to perform other missions.

      The part that troubles me the most with the "Digital Century Series" concept is the lack of prototyping and flying those prototypes to wring out the design before committing to full-production. I don't think we've done that with a major program.

      You cite the B-2 and F-22 programs as examples of "producing fewer and fewer aircraft that cost more and more." Wnile that is true, both were victims of their times. Like the Seawolf program, B-2 production was truncated as a result of the Cold War coming to a close. And, production of the F-22 ceased as we were fighting wars in Iraq and Afganistan. Plus, there was no major adversary that required something like the F-22.

    12. "Comparisons to how we built aircraft in the 1920's to 50's is non-applicable."

      Sure. If historical data doesn't support you … ignore it! Those who will not learn from history …

      "We don't have a broken system."

      Wow! There can't be more than ten people in world who believe that. Opinions differ about the fix but everyone understands that system is broken. Well, you're welcome to your belief.

      There's nothing more to be done, here, so I guess I'm done with this. Feel free to have the last word, if you wish. Moving on.

    13. Good luck with that. I'm sure it will be smooth sailing between the hyper-realistic “digital twin” and production.


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