In an effort to reduce cost and speed up its often snail-paced acquisition system, the US Air Force intends to water down the capabilities it expects to see in a new jet trainer, as well as several other ongoing acquisition programmes.

USAF Secretary Deborah Lee James said on 14 January that the Air Force is specifically targeting four programmes for capabilities downgrades, including the T-X trainer replacement for the Northrop Grumman T-38 jet trainer. Also in the crosshairs of the so-called cost-capability analysis (CCA) programme are the long-range standoff weapon, the follow-on to the space-based infrared system (SIBRS) and the multi-domain adaptable processing system (MAPS), which is envisioned as a pod to enable communications between stealth fighters.

“By gathering data from a range of sources it should be possible to identify instances where small changes in capability could have a major effect on cost,” James said during a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

The four programmes will be the first to undergo what will be a “specific industry engagement process” to identify capability reductions that the air force could stomach if they are offset with significant cost savings.

“Say we have a requirement for a new jet to fly 500mph, but discovered we could achieve significant cost savings if we amended the requirement to 450mph,” James offered as a hypothetical scenario. “Maybe we might choose to modify that requirement.”

James said the Air Force was about two years from issuing a request for proposals (RFP) on the T-X programme, but did not offer specific examples of what capability requirements might be amended. The program will consider alteration of both “higher level” and “bare bones” requirements, she says.

The air force still refuses to water down the requirements for its top three modernization programmes: the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and a new long-range strike bomber. James specifically mentioned the bomber replacement in her remarks.

“It is one of our top three acquisition priorities,” she said. “It is a new programme that is highly classified. There have been no changes to speak of in the parameters, but when we roll out the FY16 budget, it will similar to what was projected in the FY15 budget.”

The Obama administration is expected to publish its budget in early February.

The air force suffers from systemic acquisition sluggishness, James says. In sole-source cases where there is a single known supplier, it takes an average of 17 months to award a contract, she says. Several initiatives are aimed at bringing that gulf to single digits.

Later this month at George Mason University, the air force will unveil the PlugFest Play initiative where it will solicit industry demonstrations of specific technologies with the intention of awarding a contract within months. The first system to undergo the operation will be the distributed common ground system, which collects and distributes multiple sources of signals intelligence for both the air force and Army.

James also announced a $2 million X-Prize for a midsize turbofan engine that could power both commercial and military aircraft.