Podcast: The Latest On The B-21 And The U.S. Air Force

Northrop Grumman is starting tests on the next stealth bomber, while industry is floating multiple concepts for collaborative combat aircraft.

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Rush Transcript

Jen DiMascio:

Hello, and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for Defense and Space, and I'm here with Pentagon Editor Brian Everstine, and Space and Emerging Technologies Editor Garrett Reim. We're at the Gaylord National Convention Center outside Washington DC for the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

So far the show has been a little quieter than in past years. The Air Force and industry are discussing a lot of different concepts for new fighters and the technologies that will be fitted on those, but we've had few big announcements for industry that we might've seen in past years. One thing that we did see are new images of the B-21 Raider. Brian, what did those images show and what did Northrop Grumman have to say about it?

Brian Everstine:

Yeah, I think it kind of shows how starved we are for information on this program that three new pictures, two released by the Air Force and one released by Northrop Grumman, really is the news from a show.

These were the first times we've seen photos of the B-21 from the side, which does show a lot of interesting new perspectives on the bomber. It takes me back to, I was at the rollout back last December, and as we were being shuffled out as quickly as possible from the secure area I got a side look on it, and it really appeared to me to be similar to ... Just a larger version of the penetrating ISR aircraft that the Air Force and Northrop don't like to talk about, the RQ-180, just a larger version of it. And it's a really interesting angle. You can see the long sweeping wings, some of the control systems on the wings, and a different perspective on the intakes.

So if you're an AvGeek nerd, you can pick apart a lot of the different perspectives you can see on it. And one thing I thought was interesting on especially from the side shot, you can see what appears to be where the refueling receptacle would be some new markings on top, which you didn't see in some of the earlier pictures. And I don't know if that was new. I just not too long ago had a brief interview with Northrop Grumman's Head of Aeronautics Tom Jones, and he basically said it's the same aircraft. There has been no changes, but what you are seeing are just different angles, different things can pop out when you look at it from a different approach.

The other big news on the B-21, "big," is that they are doing engine run tests as we're looking forward to a first flight. And Tom said that Northrop had invested in a fuel system simulator to try to speed up that work, that they went from fueling up to first engine run within five days, which apparently, I mean, those people who know a lot more about aircraft design, that this is very much accelerated. I think they used an unprecedented term for how fast they're moving along.

And we're still looking at first flight by the end of the year. The Air Force representatives are the ones really pushing saying first flight by the end of the year, whereas the company's saying it gets data-driven, it'll fly when it's ready, the airplane gets a vote, et cetera, et cetera. But we're still looking at first flight by the end of the year.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, casting a shadow over the event and perhaps some of these announcements we were hoping for, is really the number of holds that Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville has placed on Pentagon nominations. For example, the chief of the Space Force, General Saltzman, confirmed yesterday that one third of his senior officer ranks are awaiting confirmation. Brian, you've really followed this discussion closely. What are some of the details that have unfolded at the show?

Brian Everstine:

Yeah, it's interesting. So this is the Air Force show, the chief of staff of the Air Force, he was the one that actually showed these B-21 pictures at first during his speech, but he is awaiting a big promotion. He's supposed to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He vice right now, Gen. [David] Allvin, yesterday had a confirmation hearing on the Hill and he's supposed to take his spot. It was interesting, the commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mark Kelly, led off a press conference yesterday saying he's going on retirement leave soon, but he's not going to be retired. He wasn't expecting to be at this AFA.

So it's really trickling down through commands. I talked to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall about this yesterday. He actually led off his keynote address, pretty much the biggest stage as a speaker he has for his service, just really going after Senator Tuberville, the kind of just intransigence on getting these promotions through, and also going deep into budget problems and everything and all the other messes that are happening on Capitol Hill.

But beyond just retirement times moves, et cetera, he said his big problem with this right now is he is picking people for specific roles to help further craft strategies that aren't able to do that work. He announced in his keynote a big review of this service's ability to go to war essentially, trying to get back on sort of a Cold War footing to be able to deploy entire bases. Instead of crowdsourcing air expeditionary wings they're going to start doing this task force approach, but the people he wants to lead this effort can't really get into those roles until there are confirmations, and there really doesn't seem to be an end insight on that.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, another thing we were hoping to learn about is the Next Generation Air Dominance program, which is classified so we don't ever really get to know much, but Boeing seemed to leak a few images of their concept. What are they saying about it?

Brian Everstine:

Not much. I tried to talk to them a little bit last night and it seemed like it was maybe a little bit of a surprise for some of the folks here. I thought it was just funny, the sniffing at industry. You could see Northrop Grumman got the stage with this huge B-21 photo, and then Boeing decided to post this video I think first on LinkedIn, showing some new concepts for a sixth-generation NGAD.

And so I mean, yeah, these programs are classified. We're not going to really hear that much about it. One big industry focus has been the collaborative combat aircraft, and if you walk the floor you'll see any company throwing up any concept they can possibly have. But everyone's waiting on requirements, they're waiting on an acquisition strategy. I was at the Navy's Tailhook Conference a couple of weeks ago, where they said that their N98 requirements division has put forward a draft top level requirements and their draft acquisition strategy. That's sitting with the Navy's acquisitions boss right now, who's apparently got some notes and they're finalizing that.

I tried to ask the Air Force acquisition boss, Andrew Hunter, about this yesterday or the day before yesterday, and I said, "Are you on a similar approach?" And he was very cagey about it, but he said the Air Force is ahead of the Navy, but didn't really say more about where they are on these overall requirements and the overall acquisition strategy.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, the show floor, as you said, has been full of concepts for CCA. What are you hearing from the companies themselves, Garrett?

Garrett Reim:

Yeah, there's a number of different philosophies and CCA concepts out there. Some companies are seeking better definitions from the Department of Defense, especially when it comes to levels of autonomy. It's been suggested that maybe the Pentagon should have levels of autonomy like the self-driving car industry does, one being the lowest level and five being fully automated.

And then there's a debate on costs and purposes of these aircraft. The National Defense Authorization Act, the draft of it, has outlined three different types of CCAs, a $3 million one that would be expendable, a $10 million one would be attritable, and then a more exquisite $25 million on, and Kendall and the Air Force have pushed back against those definitions. And then each of the potential contractors have their own ideas about cost. You see some of the insurgents like a Kratos, who want to go on with a lower cost, more attritable, has a quality all of its own kind of approach. And then incumbents like General Atomics want to build the more exquisite systems. They feel that you need something like that to do the job.

And so there's a debate, not just between the Air Force and Congress, but also between the different contractors themselves.

Jen DiMascio:

Interesting. Yeah, that'll be interesting to see how that unfolds. You've also been doing some reporting on the Joint All-Domain Command and Control effort. It should theoretically connect those CCA aircraft to shooters and other sensors. What are you hearing along those lines?

Garrett Reim:

Yeah, this year, as in years past, lots of talk about networking everything and then using artificial intelligence to connect it all. But it still seems very experimental in terms of fielding systems and really moving forward into operational systems, at least within the Earth's airspace. That's not so much happening. But the Space Force likes to point out or they say, they're answer to China, China, China is space, space, space.

And so they've highlighted the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, their constellation of small satellites in lower-Earth orbit, as the backbone of JADC2. And they point out the tyranny of distance over the Pacific Ocean. Space and laser communications and constellations of satellites help you network a whole bunch of different systems, and in some ways SDA is taking the lead as they're actually fielding systems. They have tranche 0 tracking, missile tracking satellites and data transport satellites on orbit. Two out of three launches done for that, and that will demonstrate the concept. And then they have a program of record for follow on tranches and more satellites after that.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, Brian, is there anything else you wanted to share with us before we go?

Brian Everstine:

Yeah, one thing I just thought of, I was thinking about the line we were talking about, about no real acquisition industry, hard news and walking the floor. One thing that stood out to me is the Air Force just had this big announcement with JetZero doing Blending Wing Body, the Air Mobility Command. The Air Force is starting off these two large programs called NGAS, Next-Generation Air Refueling System, NGAL, Next-Generation Air Lifter. We're at the pre AOA stage of those.

But industry hasn't really been talking that much, putting forward any concepts, I think they're really waiting on requirements. But I figured that, as like with CCAs, it'd be kind of showing a little bit more of some of their thinking. I talked with General Minihan about this on the first day and gave a hint of what they're looking at, a three-stage approach for these systems, kind of an NGAS tactical, very forward leaning, small, stealthy, being able to fuel an NGAD up close to the fight. And then coming back to an NGAL operational, NGAS operational, excuse me, more of that middle level, like a KC-46 with advanced EW protection, et cetera. And then an NGAS strategic for a big aircraft, with a lot of fuel offload, the kind of stuff we do at home, training just off the coast of California in the Pacific scenario.

So the Air Force is showing a little bit of their thinking on this, and I just haven't really seen that much from industry putting forward their thoughts and concepts.

Jen DiMascio:

Is that because you think Boeing just wants to continue making the KC-46 and that's where they're going to go for at least the foreseeable future?

Brian Everstine:

Well, I'd love to hear what Phantom Works is working on in this area, but I think for the near term, Boeing absolutely wants to keep their 46 line humming. Lockheed is still really, really pushing their LMXT, especially again when you look at the strategic level tanker. But I think that what we're hearing from industry on the near term is they don't really buy what the Air Force is pushing for their NGAS timeline. They don't see it coming up to the 2030, 2035, more like a 2040. And that would require a shift back to the bridge tanker, KC-Y approach, of buying more KC-46s with just a touch more capability, or an LMXT.

So the Air Force wants to think big. There's an industry day coming up in a few weeks where they're looking for revolutionary clean-sheet designs for NGAS and NGAL. And I think at least the big players in the industry are just kind of want to hum along and keep going with what they're building right now.

Jen DiMascio:

One more question before we go. Last week the Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks discussed this big Replicator Initiative. What have you learned here at AFA that fits into this or not?

Brian Everstine:

Frankly, and I definitely want to hear Garrett's thoughts on this, but from what I've heard, talking to some of the Air Force operational leaders, Secretary Kendall, that I'm still struggling to wrap my head around exactly what Replicator is.

Kath Hicks was speaking here in DC last week, talked about how there's no new authorities, no new funding. And I'm just trying to wrap my head around how they're going to buy thousands upon thousands of new systems without new authorities or new funding, and how this may more likely be a renaming of existing programs. Like the Army has a bunch of programs to buy thousands of small UAVs, which sounds a lot like Replicator. So I just need to see how this is actually going to play out.

Garrett Reim:

Yeah, I know I have similar questions and it's an open question of not just creating the DOD infrastructure to buy thousands of aircraft, but industry, where does it have the industrial capacity to build that? You hear about supply chain constraints and labor shortages now and yeah, so that would all have to be solved and two years is a pretty short timeline.

Jen DiMascio:

Do you see that as a renaming of things like the Space Development Agency, what they're doing in space already with proliferated LEO constellations?

Garrett Reim:

I Haven't heard that.

Brian Everstine:

Secretary Hicks said that that is an example of some of their thinking for what Replicator could be. She talked about SDA, she talked about the Navy's task force of Saildrones in the Middle East, and these are all existing, ongoing programs so is it just a scaling up of that?

On the industrial capacity note, I had asked Secretary LaPlante, the overall DOD acquisition boss, about that and how they can get after it. And his answer was that they need everybody. They need companies gigantic and small to get involved, and understand that there is a demand signal from the DOD to buy this. But how they're going to do that without new money, I don't get it.

Jen DiMascio:

All right. Well, thanks to you both for a great job here at AFA. We'll be back again next week for another edition of the Check 6 Podcast, which you can download on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts. Join us again next week. Thanks, Bye-bye.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.

Garrett Reim

Based in the Seattle area, Garrett covers the space sector and advanced technologies that are shaping the future of aerospace and defense, including space startups, advanced air mobility and artificial intelligence.