WASHINGTON — Two contractors were working with the Air Force on the design of its secretive Next Generation Air Dominance fighter prior to a formal invitation for bids launched last week, the service’s top civilian said Monday, in a rare disclosure for the program that has long been shrouded in secrecy.
Frank Kendall, the Air Force secretary, further confirmed that only one vendor would move forward once the fighter’s engineering, manufacturing and development contract is awarded next year.
Speaking during a breakfast hosted by the Defense Writers Group, Kendall was discussing how digital design tools have enabled the service’s program executive officers to exist “in the same design space” as the contractors working to build the platform, when he subsequently revealed how many were previously in the mix.
“I was out at [Wright-Patterson Air Force Base] and I saw a government engineer who was very capable working directly with one of the two contractors. He was on one of the teams interfacing with them on the design,” he said — an indication there were only two competitors active on NGAD at the time of the secretary’s visit to the base.
Asked to clarify Kendall’s comments, an Air Force spokesperson said that the presence of two contractors should not be taken as a sign that there are two formal competitors.
“We have not received any proposals yet but we expect multiple proposals in the future,” the spokesperson said. “We will not be able to provide the company names or the number of offerors for the NGAD Platform source selection. The acquisition strategy accounts for an engineering and manufacturing development contract intended to be awarded in 2024.”
Defense giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have at times indicated interest in the program, and there was widespread assumption that all three were actively going to seek the NGAD contract. Notably, the three companies were awarded contracts last August, worth up to $975 million each, for technology maturation on the Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion (NGAP) program. According to a report in Inside Defense, bringing on the airframe primes in the ongoing engine work — where General Electric and Pratt & Whitney are facing off to power the sixth-gen NGAD fighter — would enable the service to have propulsion options available for any NGAD platform.
Asked last week about the Air Force’s NGAD solicitation, Boeing and Northrop did not respond to Breaking Defense’s request for comment. Lockheed said in a statement that “Lockheed Martin continues to work with our customers to advance critical technology areas to enable the next generation of air dominance mission capabilities, to outpace emerging threats and deliver true 21st Century Security solutions to our nation’s military forces.”
Kendall said Monday that to avoid the high-profile woes that hindered the F-35 program — which the secretary previously famously labeled “acquisition malpractice” — the Air Force intends to run “as integrated and as fully transparent a design process and contracting process as possible.”
Importantly, the secretary said, the Air Force is “not going to repeat what I think, quite frankly, was a serious mistake that was made on the F-35 program,” where an idea that previously prevailed in Pentagon acquisitions called “Total System Performance” meant that “when a contractor won a program it owned the program. It was going to do the whole lifecycle of the program.”
Allowing that kind of arrangement “create[s] a perpetual monopoly,” Kendall said, as opposed to approaches that would facilitate more government-led maintenance sometimes called organic sustainment. Kendall emphasized that issue in some ways remains today, where government officials are currently locked in negotiations with Lockheed over obtaining more data rights for the Joint Strike Fighter as the Pentagon moves toward a new performance-based logistics model.
“We’re going to make sure the government has ownership of the intellectual property it needs. We’re also making sure we have modular designs with open systems so that going forward we can bring new suppliers in — [regardless of] whoever we choose as the platform integrator. And we’ll have a much tighter degree of government control over the future of that program than we’ve had,” he said.