The U.S. Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown a demonstrator for its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which connects air warfare systems that could include fighters, drones and other networked systems.
On the second day of the Air Force Associations virtual Air, Space and Cyber Confrerence, Sept. 15, Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, confirmed in his address that a previously undisclosed prototype of the USAF next generation fighter jet has begun flight testing.
“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world,” Roper told in an exclusive interview ahead of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept 14. “And we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
We're excited too. That means a mysterious new fighter aircraft is out there, and has already hit the skies!
What do we know about this mystery aircraft?
Aside from the fact that it exists and that it's been flown, not much. We do however, know quite a bit about its potential impacts on the defense industry.
Due to its NGAD classification, almost every detail of aircraft will be kept secret. Whether the demonstrator is considered a true prototype for NGAD is even unclear. All we know, is the demonstrator is a sign that the next generation fighter will be a quick-evolving effort.
Roper declined to comment on how many prototype aircraft have been flown or on any aspect of the aircraft's design: its mission, which defense contractors were involved in its development, whether it was crewed or optionally crewed, has stealth characteristics or if it could fly at hypersonic speeds has all been kept under wraps.
So, what did they say about the aircraft?
Roper emphasized the importance of the process the Air Force has taken to achieve this stage of the NGAD development.
In just one year after the service completed an analysis of alternatives, the Air Force has proven it can use cutting-edge advanced manufacturing techniques to build and test a virtual version of its next fighter, and then move to constructing a full-scale prototype and flying it with mission systems onboard.
"This is not just something that you can apply to things that are simple systems” like Boeing’s T-7 Red Hawk trainer jet, the first Air Force aircraft to be built using the “holy trinity” of digital engineering, agile software development and open architecture, Roper said to Defense News.
“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.”
What does this mean for the defense industry?
The NGAD program has the potential to shake up defense industry production.
This is the first we've heard of an experimental fighter we've since the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 competed for the Joint Strike Fighter contract 20 years ago, so it came as a shock to many defense contractors that this experimental aircraft has completed a test flight. With the Air Force's future fighter program still in its infancy, the rollout and successful first flight of a demonstrator has not been expected for years.
While Roper declined to say how quickly the Air Force would move into the production phase of its next-gen fighter, he did say it would be "pretty fast".
But before it can begin producing the next generation of fighters, the Air Force must first determine how many aircraft it will commit to buy and it when it wasn't to purchase them - all choices that would influence the 2022 fiscal budget and, potentially, alter production of other fighter programs.
As a challenger to the Lockheed Martin F-35 and McDonnell Douglas F-15EX fighter aircraft, NGAD could put these older fighter programs at risk. And, because the advanced manufacturing techniques Roper mentioned as critical for building NGAD were pioneered by the commercial sector, the program could offer new aircraft contractors a chance to manufacture a new fighter - companies like SpaceX could branch into Air Force development too.
“I have to imagine there will be a lot of engineers — maybe 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.
This says a lot more about who can enter the military contract ring. The list of military contractors has grown increasingly smaller as companies merged to overcome competition, edging out smaller parts companies and manufacturers in the process. Now, with the possibility of new companies entering the military contract ring, minority-owned small businesses like AeroBase Group can get in as suppliers for these large scale programs.
The disclosure of a flying full-scale fighter prototype could be just what the Air Force needs to garner more financial support from Congress during a critical time where the service is facing budget constraints and needs to gain momentum, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
While we hope that more details will emerge surrounding this mysterious aircraft, given the nature of the NGAD program we probably will not hear more about it until another significant milestone is met. In the meantime, we'll explore fascinating known aircraft on this blog.
For more information on this mysterious experimental fighter, stay tuned on Aviation Enthusiasts Blog.