USAF secretly built and flew six generation fighter demonstrator

The US Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown a full-scale demonstrator aircraft that is part of its Next Generation Air Dominance programme.

Defense News reports that the service has secretly designed, built, and flown a prototype of a future fighter jet under its Next Generation Air Dominance program.

This art from Boeing shows one concept for the Air Force's future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance
This art from Boeing shows one concept for the Air Force’s future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance

“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper told Defense News during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

Details regarding the new aircraft are shrouded in secrecy thanks to the NGAD program’s classification, and Roper didn’t disclose much in his conversation with Defense News beyond praise for the mysterious new aircraft’s systems.

“We’re going after the most complicated systems that have ever been built, and checked all the boxes with this digital technology,” he added. “In fact, [we’ve] not just checked the boxes, [we’ve] demonstrated something that’s truly magical.”

Will Roper, the head of Air Force acquisition, revealed the existence of the new jet, which he said was part of the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, project.

“NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world, exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results,” Roper said during a video presentation at the Air Force Association’s Virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Tuesday. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing.”

Roper provided no more details about the jet, which is presumed to be the Pentagon’s first attempt to build a “sixth-generation” tactical aircraft after the fifth-gen F-22 and F-35 jets. He even declined to name the company or companies that built the jet. 

But he said the digital design technology used to build the new plane could increase competition and increase the number of American military jet makers. 

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“Digital engineering is lowering overhead for production and assembly [so] you do not have to have huge facilities, huge workforces [and] expensive tooling,” Roper said on a video conference call with reporters after his presentation. “It is letting us take aircraft assembly back to where we were in the [19]70s and prior to it — back when we had 10 or more companies who could build airplanes for the United States Air Force, because you could do it in hangar-like facilities with small, but very good teams, of engineers and mechanics. We’re going back to that. It’s super exciting.”

The sixth generation fighter will likely have directed energy weapons—high-powered microwaves and lasers for defense against incoming missiles or as offensive weapons themselves. Munitions would likely be of the “dial an effect” type, able to cause anything from impairment to destruction of an air or ground target.

A Northrop Grumman artist’s conception of a sixth generation fighter employing directed energy weapons and stealthy data networking. (Northrop Grumman illustration)

Materials and microelectronics technologies would combine to make the aircraft a large integrated sensor, possibly eliminating the need for a nose radar as it is known today. It would be equipped for making cyber attacks as well as achieving kinetic effects, but would still have to be cost-effective to make, service, and modify.

Moreover, the rapid advancement of unmanned aircraft technologies could, in 20 years or so, make feasible production of an autonomous robotic fighter. However, that is considered less likely than the emergence of an uninhabited but remotely piloted aircraft with an off-board “crew,” possibly comprising many operators.

Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are the only three U.S. companies that currently build fighter jets. 

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