The U.S. Air Force is conducting flight tests of its Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) jet built under a secretive project intended to include jets and drones.
Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper revealed today that the service has built a full-scale prototype of the NGAD fighter.
Digital engineering helped accelerate pace of the project, he said. “NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world [and] exploring things that would have cost us time and money to wait for physical-world results,” he said during a keynote address at the virtual Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference.
“The NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. All I can say is that the NGAD test flights have been amazing. Records have been broken,” the official said.
Roper was tightlipped when asked about the specifications of the jet and by when it could be fielded. “When, where and how we field is a choice with a lot of details,” he remarked, noting that availability of funds will be a key factor. It is also subject to how the systems will fit into the larger tactical air portfolio.
It is not known whether the NDAG aircraft is even manned or unmanned.
News of the aircraft caught everyone by surprise. “This certainly helps explain where the NGAD funding was going,” Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in an email to Breaking Defense.
“One of the things we noted in our recent budget analysis is that the program was already at a burn rate of around $1B per year, even though the acquisition strategy had not been finalized.”
In October 2019, the U.S.A.F. created a new office to transform the NGAD program into the Air Force’s Digital Century Series initiative, using digital engineering, modular open systems architecture and Agile software development to design advanced airplanes faster and enter production with a significantly lower learning curve. The Digital Century Series aims to improve the speed and flexibility with which aircraft can be fielded by using all-digital design and manufacturing technologies and will not alter the warfighting technologies pursued in NGAD.