The US Air Force has already test flown the prototype of its “sixth-generation” fighter jet. The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) is expected to be a follow up of the Lockheed Marin’s fifth-generation F-22 stealth fighter.
“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told Defense News in an interview. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
There is very little known about the fighter as the NGAD program is classified. In the interview with Defence News, Roper declined to comment on any aspect of the fighter’s design – its mission, whether it was uncrewed or optionally crewed, whether it could fly at hypersonic speeds or if it has stealth characteristics.
“We’re going after the most complicated systems that have ever been built, and checked all the boxes with this digital technology. In fact, [we’ve] not just checked the boxes, [we’ve] demonstrated something that’s truly magical,” Roper told the Defence News.
It is still unknown who the manufacture will be for the program. In recent years, the US industrial base has only seen three key manufacturers – Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. However, as advanced manufacturing techniques are crucial for NGAD, it could see the entry of contractors including SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
“I have to imagine there will be a lot of engineers — may be famous ones with well-known household names with billions of dollars to invest — that will decide starting the world’s greatest aircraft company to build the world’s greatest aircraft with the Air Force is exactly the kind of inspiring thing they want to do as a hobby or even a main gig,” Roper said.
Roper further added that fielding date isn’t important but it is imperative to push the technical boundaries more. Thomas Newdick of TheDrive, predicted that the new fighter would be “unmanned”.
“Based on the nature of the NGAD program, it seems most likely that the aircraft in question is a technology demonstrator that will be used for risk-reduction efforts and to help prove major concepts that could underpin the NGAD program,” he wrote.
“Perhaps coincidentally, there has been a notable uptick in flight-test activity in the Southwest of the United States of late, which could point at least in part to NGAD-related testing.”
Analysts are seeing this announcement as a way to garner more financial support from Congress at a time when the Air Force is facing budget constraints.
“If you can quickly get to something and show progress through product, it just changes the whole dynamic for the Hill,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defence budget analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.. “[Roper has] got so many headwinds, it seems this would be a likely avenue to show conceptual success for his ideas.”
Roper acknowledged that he had to face difficulties explaining the need for the program during classified sessions with many of the lawmakers who sit on those panels to present findings of the business case study as well as the detailed progress of NGAD development and test activities.
“I have not left a single one of those briefings with anything other than [lawmakers saying]: ‘This is the future, we ought to do it now. And why aren’t we going faster?’ And the answer [to] why we aren’t going faster is simply money. We can push the accelerator down more today because digital technology allows it.”