The U.S. Air Force published a concept art for a fighter aircraft being built under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project intended to include both crewed and uncrewed aircraft.
In its biennial report for acquisition published on April 9, a large NGAD aircraft with a delta-style, flying wing-type design can been seen armed with weapons.
NGAD was originally mooted as a joint project between the Air Force and the Navy, and there is still some cooperation between them, but the two services have created separate NGAD offices. Air Force NGAD is budgeted at $9 billion from 2019 to 2025. The FY 2021 budget is $1 billion, with a request of $1.5 billion for FY 2022.
Designed to complement the F-35 and F-22, the NGAD is an advanced aircraft program for development of penetrating counter air platforms with multi-domain situational awareness, agile resilient communications, and an integrated family of capabilities. The program is employing digital engineering too replace once-in-a-generation, mass produced fighters with smaller batches of iteratively-upgraded platforms of multiple types. This approach takes a cue from the digital transformation of the automotive industry, using models to troubleshoot design, assembly, maintenance, and sustainment before physical systems exist, the service said.
The Air Force report did not specify how much the service spent on the project.
A mystery jet developed under this project started undergoing tests last year. It is not known whether this aircraft is even manned or unmanned. The jet was reportedly designed, built, and flown in the astonishing span of just one year!
“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, had told Defense News. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
The Next Generation Air Dominance program is the Air Force’s effort for fielding a family of connected air warfare systems that could include fighters, drones and other networked platforms in space or the cyber realm.
Roper declined to comment on how many prototype aircraft have been flown or which defense contractors manufactured them. He wouldn’t say when or where the first flight occurred. And he refused to divulge any aspect of the aircraft’s design — its mission, whether it was uncrewed or optionally crewed, whether it could fly at hypersonic speeds or if it has stealth characteristics.
The Air Force has said that NGAD exists to examine five major technologies that are likely to appear on next generation aircraft, with the goal of enhancements in survivability, lethality, and persistence. It has not specified what four of those technologies are. The one acknowledged NGAD-related technology is propulsion, as per a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published in October 2020.
Over the past few years, the Air Force has invested substantially in variable cycle engines. Other likely candidates include new forms of stealth; advanced weapons, including directed energy; and thermal management. The current engine on the F-35 and its variants expected to be on the B-21 produce a tremendous amount of electrical power that can enable new weapons. That could require advanced techniques to manage generated heat, so that it does not become part of the aircraft signatures and make the plane easier to detect.
There appears little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to outturn another plane—or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft.