Is the U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter program going too fast or too slow? Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has been forced to backtrack on recent comments about the development timeline. This lack of clarity has the Department of Defense’s Inspector General taking a look at the program to make sure the technological pace is advancing at an acceptable rate for completion of the new airplane by 2030.
What Is Going On With NGAD?
Where exactly along the procurement timeline is the project located? Kendall has given indication that the critical path is being followed. The DOD Inspector General, however, is concerned that the NGAD is not in the vital engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase. EMD would mean that the new fighter is graduating along the path to a more advanced prototype and assigned to a prime contractor.
Prying Eyes at the Inspector General’s Office
Randolph Stone, assistant inspector general for evaluations, space, intelligence, engineering and oversight, wrote in a memo September 26 that his agency would take a closer look at NGAD. “Our objective is to determine the extent to which the Air Force demonstrated that the critical technologies used in the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter aircraft were mature enough to support entry into the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the NGAD program’s acquisition timeline.”
Memo Had Short and Distinct Tone
The short memorandum was terse, directly to the point, and only one page long, a brevity that is rare at the Pentagon. Stone said that the bureau would conduct “site visits” as necessary. “We may revise the objective as the evaluation proceeds, and we will also consider suggestions from management for additional or revised objectives,” Stone wrote.
What Does It Mean for NGAD?
Reading the tea leaves about this document is difficult. It could mean the DOD IG is just doing routine checks to make sure the program is meeting milestones without the possibility of delays. It could also mean that the IG has received negative reports about progress and is highly concerned the NGAD program is off track and that its technology is immature in spite of substantial monetary investment ($4.2 billion since 2015) in the program. The latter case would have the Air Force fearful about negative press and prying Congressional oversight – maybe even tough questions for Kendall in a Capitol Hill hearing.
Breaking Defense wrote that the Air Force plans to “cooperate fully” with the inquiry.
Keeping NGAD On Track
If the NGAD has not reached engineering and manufacturing development at this point, it could affect the program’s ability to reach important milestones in future – potentially throwing the timing out of whack.
Keep NGAD Progressing This Decade
Kendall has provided clues in the past that led some to believe EMD had been reached, only to have the Air Force secretary backtrack on his claims. That seems to be the IG’s concern – differing statements have precipitated a new set of eyes. After all, few want the NGAD to fail. The stakes are high in ensuring the military has the kind of future fighter that can guarantee air superiority against Russia and China.
More Details on NGAD
The NGAD will be a sixth-generation fighter that can control a flight of “loyal wingman” drones that could be used for stand-off missile launch and ground attack. The “family of systems” could also conduct electronic warfare to blind the enemy as the manned airplane penetrates contested air space to better attack an adversary. The drones could provide improved targeting information for aerial or ground strikes.
Kendall’s Ambiguous Statements
Kendall has at different times said that NGAD was in EMD phase or was not in EMD phase. This ambiguity may have tripped a switch at the IG office and alerted some of the personnel there that it is time to shine a light on the NGAD program. Small bumps in a timeline are normal for any acquisition program, the IG just wants to make sure the hiccups remain small and not grow to festering wounds that would lead to schedule slips and cost overruns.
Let’s Be More Discreet
One thing you are likely to see is that the loquacious Air Force Secretary Kendall trims down the number of his speaking engagements, public appearances, and media interviews. He should probably only speak when the NGAD program has concretely met milestones. This would likely help keep the inspectors from further peeking into the NGAD’s development – or lack of development.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.