Can’t See a Congress with a Chamber Controlled by Republicans Agreeing to “nationalize warfighting capabilities and the defense industrial base” of US Air Force

Further to the second part of this post,

And here’s how the USAF hopes to approach future air combat capabilities:

Air Force Creates New PEO for NGAD, Applying “Digital Century Series” Idea [PEO is program executive officer, the person in charge]

the USAF’s top acquisition official is thinking pretty darn radically for someone in a Republican (of sorts) administration–from Defense One by Marcus Weisberger (tweets here):

US May Need to Nationalize Military Aircraft Industry, USAF Says

That’s unless the Air Force can find a way to keep both competition and the few remaining U.S. plane-makers alive, the service’s acquisition chief said.

The United States might need to nationalize parts of the military aviation sector if the Pentagon does not come up with new ways to buy planes that stimulate more competition in private industry, a top Air Force official warned.

Will Roper, the head of Air Force acquisition, spoke Tuesday morning [July 14] as the service finalizes ambitious plans to buy a new series of combat fighter jets called the Digital Century Series.

“We have multiple vendors who can still build a high-end, tactical platform,” Roper told reporters. “I think it’s really important that we find a new model where there are no big winners and no big losers, but continual competition [emphasis added].”

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the only U.S. companies that make tactical fighter jets. Boeing’s F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet are considered a generation behind Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Boeing and Sweden’s Saab are building the new T-7 pilot training jet.

Northrop Grumman is the only U.S. manufacturer of a heavy bomber. Boeing’s KC-46 is the only aerial tanker in serial production and Lockheed’s C-130 Super Hercules tactical transport is the only military cargo plane in production. There are no strategic, long-range military transports in production.

Roper hopes his Digital Century Series plan will attract a new generation of engineers to the defense sector and provide a model for buying different types of military aircraft.

Technical talent is at a premium,” he said. “If the design opportunities are so few and far between that joining a defense company means you may get to design one thing in your career … — and that’s if you’re lucky — that that talent will go elsewhere into commercial innovation where the opportunities are more plentiful. [emphasis added]

Roper’s project envisions developing and buying plans at a much quicker rate than traditional tactical fighters which often take a decade before they are produced in large quantities. By that time, technology is already dated and brand new planes must undergo costly and time consuming upgrade projects.

The Digital Century Series is a throwback to the U.S. military’s “Century Series” fighter jets built in the 1950s and 1960s. His hope is that new companies emerge and disrupt the sector, much like Elon Musk’s Tesla electric vehicles have disrupted the automobile industry.

If our industrial base collapses any more, we’ll have to nationalize advanced aviation and maybe other parts of the Air Force that currently are competitive,” Roper said. “But I also am holding out some hope that if we open up the door to do design frequently, and build things in smaller batches that are between X-planes and mass production, that we will eventually encourage an innovative company to cross over into defense, or companies to start up that just want to build really cool airplanes or satellites, because they don’t have to own the big production lines and tooling workforce, which is the only way to work with us today [emphasis added].”..

The defense industry has contracted in recent years following a series of high-profile mergers and acquisitions, the latest being the April mega-merger of United Technologies and Raytheon, which followed UTC’s acquisition of Rockwell Collins. L3 Technologies merged with Harris last year.

Roper said he has been surprised that other top defense officials seem unworried about the shrinking defense industrial base. “It’s not because the defense industrial base has gotten worse, it’s just programs are so few and far between that to be any long-term partner with us in defense tech, you’d have to have a pretty diversified portfolio [emphasis added],” he said.

Roper believes his Digital Century Series plan will lower the military’s long-term costs. Since becoming the Air Force’s top weapons buyer in early 2018, he has been looking for ways to lower the lifetime costs of owning planes. Roper compared buying weapons to getting a free or deeply discounted mobile phone from a wireless provider which then locks the customer into a long-term service contract. 

“I believe it’s going to be cheaper to procure airplanes this way than it will be with the major production line, not because the per unit price will be cheaper … but because the total price of ownership is lower, that we will get out the heavy modernization and sustainment costs that really start piling after Year 15 [emphasis added],” he said.

Roper has pushed for companies to build weapons with open technology, so the Air Force isn’t forced to repeatedly pay the company that made a specific weapon for upgrades over its lifetime.

“Everything has to change,” Roper said. “This 21st-century challenge we have simply flies in the face of Cold War acquisition. We’re going to have to use technology available to everyone. We’re not going to be able to own it and have it be exclusive for us. We’ve got to create a business model that … [the] defense industry to design systems that are open for technology, especially digital technology that again will be open to everyone [emphasis added].”..

A revolution in military aviation? One wonders if this truly revolutionary thinking can actually be implemented, especially as so many big, legacy, aluminum rice bowls could well be melted down.

See also this story at Defense News by Valerie Insinna (tweets here):

Congress has questions about the Air Force’s and Navy’s next-generation fighter programs

The Air Force envisions NGAD as a family of systems that could include aircraft, drones and other advanced technologies. But when it comes to developing new advanced aircraft, Roper wants to pursue a new strategy he calls the “Digital Century Series” that would have multiple companies continuously developing new jets and competing against each other for small-batch contracts…

The backstory:


The frenzy of defense industry mergers can be traced to 1993 [under Bill Clinton], when then-Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry invited executives to dinner. At an event now referred to as “the last supper,” Perry urged them to combine into a few, larger companies because Pentagon budget cuts would endanger at least half the combat jet firms, missile makers, satellite builders and other contractors represented at the dinner that night.

Perry’s warnings helped set off one of the fastest transformations of any modern U.S. industry, as about a dozen leading American military contractors folded into only four…

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

9 thoughts on “Can’t See a Congress with a Chamber Controlled by Republicans Agreeing to “nationalize warfighting capabilities and the defense industrial base” of US Air Force”

  1. A friend familiar with Soviet and American military matters makes an interesting observation:

    “I wonder how a mixed system would work? Independent design bureaux, something like the old Soviet system? They could produce prototypes and small development batches.

    Independent constructors that would then bid to build the selected designs. No corporate ties between design bureaux and constructors, enforced by anti-trust legislation.

    All this mess goes back to the slaughter of independent companies under Clinton. Inevitably rule by a cartel, no price competition [see the “backstory” at the post].”

    Mark Collins


  2. More on F-15EX in context of post above (further links at original):

    ‘Could the F-15EX Transform the U.S. Defense Industry?

    Can Boeing, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Air Force use an old fighter to teach the U.S. aerospace industry new tricks?

    As was widely reported in July, the Air Force has decided to acquire a large number of F-15EX fighters over the next several years. The F-15EX was initially expected to replace the elderly F-15 C/D, but the latest reports indicate that it may also replace the Air Force’s fleet of F-15Es.

    Essentially, the F-15EX concept binds generations of technological innovation into the very old F-15 airframe. The F-15EX uses the classic F-15 frame but incorporates a host of technological improvements developed over the course of the last thirty years.

    Serial production of the F-15, driven largely by foreign sales in recent years, enables the integration of new technologies and keeps both the workforce and the manufacturing facilities fresh. The logic of replacing the F-15E (alongside the F-15C/D) is straightforward:

    *the F-15 and the F-35 have overlapping, non-identical missions and capabilities;
    *the F-15EX significantly expands the capabilities of the existing F-15 fleet
    *Eliminating the need for expensive service life extension programs.

    At the very least, the F-15EX project means that the Air Force will have new, advanced airframes capable of doing the jobs that F-15s have been doing for decades.

    More interesting, however, is the idea that the F-15EX may offer a pathway into the Digital Century Series (DCS). To review, the Century Series concept (associated most notably with Air Force chief of acquisition Wil Roper) involves designing and building an evolutionary set of airframes in small batches with open-source architecture. Roper has embraced the “Century Series” metaphor, notwithstanding the lack of success of the first “Century Series” which produced a set of mediocre aircraft soon eclipsed by the F-4 Phantom II, and critiques that the focus on manned aircraft is misplaced, and that the attention given to the DCS would be more profitably spent on unmanned aerial vehicles.

    In the DCS concept, digital engineering technologies would allow the separation of production and design, while the use of 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies would remedy some of the problems associated with the multiplication of spares and maintenance procedures. More importantly, the system would enable to continuous integration of new technologies into new airframes, as opposed to the much slower process necessitated by the precise requirements of stealth airframes. Thus, the “Digital Century Series” represents an entirely new way of thinking about aircraft acquisition, and indeed could lead to a substantial restructuring of the US aerospace industry.

    It’s wrong to say that the F-15EX is the first stage of the DCS. Stephen Trimble argues that while the F-15EX program uses many of the same tools that the Digital Century Series envisions, including advanced computer modeling and a modular platform, it is not part of the DCS per se…

    Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.’

    Mark Collins


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