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The US NGAD and Digital Engineering: Lessons for Pakistan

Author Profile: Syed Aseem Ul Islam is PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA, specializing in adaptive and model-predictive flight control systems. He received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, and his master’s degree in flight dynamics and control from the University of Michigan.

As combat aircraft have gotten complex (especially with the progression to 4+ and 5-generation designs), their lifecycles have become much longer. The wearily long development cycle of the F-35 is well known to many. The development of that fighter began in 1995, yet its first pilots began training on the program 17 years later in 2012. Likewise, the F-22 – which began as the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) in 1981 – took 22 years to its first production delivery.

Overall, since a country can only fund a finite number of high-cost, high-complexity programs at the same time, the current crop of new aircraft must fulfill multiple roles. Thus, they are equipped with the most cutting-edge systems, which drives up complexity and cost.

Furthermore, because of long development cycles, the eventual end-user requests new systems on top of the initial set of specifications, which leads to delays. In fact, this has gotten more common due to the increased rate of technological advances in recent years.

The long development cycles, coupled with delays, inevitably result in cost overruns. Despite that reality, because these projects are high priority – and with large amounts of money spent already – they become “too big to fail,” and thus, compound the cost overrun issue.

It is a classic case of a snake biting its own tail; these overruns raise the stakes of the project and, in turn, lead to even more exotic specifications to justify the cost and delays.

Finally, since the development costs inevitably balloon, one must distribute the costs over a larger number of aircraft. In turn, the end-user would have to keep these aircraft in service for a longer period to keep the life cycle costs at a justifiable level.

However, the induction of many aircraft is not always possible. Moreover, keeping these aircraft in service for an extended time-period necessitates an expensive service-life extension program (SLEP).

With these realities in mind, the Assistant Secretary of the United States Air Force (USAF), Dr. Will Roper, proposed and implemented a radical paradigm shift in aircraft life cycles. Roper proposed the “Digital Century Series” model. The name hearkens back to the group of six F-1XX fighters and fighter-bombers produced by multiple aircraft manufacturers for the purpose of meeting a variety of distinct roles in the USAF in the 1960s. Developed quickly, these were relatively simple aircraft – and they did not serve for decades. Digital Century Series is a modern revisit of this concept.

Digital Century Series Acquisition Model

Developing several aircraft over short timeframes is the main outcome of this acquisition model. With the use of digital methods, the hope is to develop relatively low-cost aircraft quickly and, in turn, retire them sooner (than their 4th and 5-generation predecessors), potentially at 3,500 hours. Basically, the end-user would replace its older aircraft with a new platform every eight years. Clearly, this is a radical departure from the current norm of operating fighters, which is to use them for decades at a time.

Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)

On 14 September, 2020, Will Roper announced that the industry designed, built, and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator of the ‘Next Generation Air Dominance’ (NGAD) all within a little over a year.

Roper did not disclose any specific details about the NGAD, but the announcement surprised observers as 5th-generation fighters were only entering widespread service. The flight of a 6th-generation demonstrator is certainly impressive. As emphasized by Dr. Roper, the details of the aircraft are not important; rather, one must focus on the fact that the digital engineering model evidently works in the real world, i.e., it can be a means to shorten and cut the cost of the development cycle.

Digital Engineering and Digital Twins

The ability to rapidly develop and fly the NGAD demonstrator boils down to the use of digital engineering. To design, develop, build, and fly an aircraft in such a short time is unfathomable with conventional design methods. This begs the question: what is digital engineering?

The key driving digital engineering is the idea that computational power has grown to a point where it is feasible to supplant time and resource-intensive legacy physical tasks in aircraft development with high-fidelity simulations that can yield results in a fraction of the time. In fact, the industry is already using new computer-based tools to develop contemporary aircraft, but NGAD had shifted the full development cycle to the digital domain.

Lessons for Project Azm?

From the onset, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) cannot – and should not – try mimicking the USAF’s approach. However, it can learn important lessons from the U.S.’ use of digital engineering, and the Digital Century Series fighter designs, but work within Pakistan’s constraints and realities…

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