The Pentagon is inviting the aerospace industry to help brainstorm the next era in U.S. air- combat superiority after the F-35 and F-22 fighters are retired, decades from now.
Reflecting the rise of drone warfare, an 18-month evaluation will consider both piloted and unmanned aircraft working in tandem with a network of weapons, sensors, electronic warfare and command-and-control capabilities, according to a memo by Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, obtained by Bloomberg News.
The intent of the “concept definition” initiative is to start preparing the Pentagon for a time when today’s F-22 jets and the new F-35s still being developed reach the end of their service lives. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will sponsor the effort, providing $20 million to $30 million in funds, according to Kendall.
Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US)’s F-35 “will provide a decisive advantage” in the “next few decades but it is not too early to begin consideration of the next generation of capability that will someday complement and eventually replace the F-35,” Kendall said in the Oct. 10 memo.
In addition to soliciting ideas from contractors, Kendall asked the Navy and Air Force to participate in the effort.
The Pentagon assumes 8,000 hours of flying time for each of the planned 2,443 F-35s over 30 years. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have their own variations of the aircraft, with the last in the fleet to be produced in 2035.
The F-35 program has been subject to criticism for its ballooning cost, which at $395.7 billion is up 70 percent percent from the $233 billion projected when Lockheed Martin won the program from Boeing Co. (BA:US) in late 2001, after adjusting for inflation.
The plane, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, has been the Pentagon’s only high-performance aircraft in development for a decade.
The Pentagon has spent $67 billion to buy 188 of the supersonic F-22 jets from Lockheed Martin. The military plans to spend an additional $11.7 billion to upgrade the planes, which were conceived during the Cold War as a fighter for the 21st Century.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, is the Pentagon research arm dedicated to maintaining the U.S. military’s technology edge. The agency, which played a role in developing the Internet, displays on its website the slogan, “Creating & Preventing Strategic Surprise.”
Agency spokesman Eric Mazzacone said Darpa “is in the early stages of working” with the Navy and Air Force to develop an implementation plan, including the timing of the competition among contractors.
Kendall said the new competition can help sustain the U.S. defense industry’s expertise in military aviation design, which he called “an important national resource.”
“Our ability to design cutting-edge platforms of this type is already atrophying” and the “potential for viable future competition in this area will shrink or be eliminated” if the Pentagon “doesn’t take action soon,” Kendall said.
U.S. aviation-design teams other than the Lockheed-led group that is working on the F-35 “will not be preserved and our technological advantage in this area will not endure unless we provide them a meaningful opportunity for leading-edge design, build and test activities,” he said.
Kendall said he expected that “innovative platform concepts for airframe, propulsion, sensors, weapons integration, avionics” will be among the areas “explored as a central part of the concept definition effort.”
“We should have no preconceived notions about the nature of air dominance a few decades into the future,” Kendall said.
Kendall said in a statement on Oct. 18 that he expected “the open nature” of the initiative “will allow a broad range of industry participants to make contributions and will ensure that the effort does not become” a subsidy to produce concepts that don’t result in a tangible product.
At the end of the evaluation, the Pentagon will assess whether any of the candidates should proceed into a prototype phase of about five years under which “multiple competing concepts may be demonstrated,” Kendall said.
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