For many years, the U.S. retained air superiority over its adversaries.
However, as China and Russia expanded their respective fifth-generation airframe programs, America’s aerial arsenal became less menacing. Beijing’s Chengdu J-20 and Moscow’s Su-57 have specifically threatened America’s former monopoly on next-generation platforms.
In order to rectify these tipping scales, the U.S. Air Force is developing its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. A new sixth-generation fighter will be the center of the program, which is expected to enter service sometime in the late 2030’s.
The history of the NGAD program:
The NGAD program was conceptualized nearly one decade ago, when DARPA studies was initiated to explore new technologies for air superiority systems for both the Air Force and Navy.
Over the next few years, the Aerospace Innovation Initiative was launched and the NGAD as we know today was created. Intended to replace the aging F-22 Raptor fighters, the new air dominance program is actually a suite of capabilities and not just a singular airframe. Propulsion, advanced weapons, digital design and stealth are some of the key technologies the NGAD program will feature.
Last year, manufacturer Lockheed Martin released mock-up images for the next-generation program. These images, and the little information that has been released by the Air Force, sums up what we know about the program. The highly classified program will be developed by either Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Northrop Grumman was also a contender, however, reports suggest that the manufacturer took itself out of the bidding process this summer. The mock-up images released by Lockheed depict a sleek and tailless airframe with refueling drawn from the LMXT tanker concept, which enables greater stealth and lower observability.
What (little) we know:
Although we don’t know how fast this sixth-generation airframe will be able to cruise, Lockheed’s rendering appeared on the manufacturer’s Instagram handle alongside images of well-known speedy airframes, including the Raptor, the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk. The F-22 can fly at speeds nearing Mach 2.0 (times the speed of sound) at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet. Analysts predict that the NGAD fighter will be able to fly with comparable capabilities.
As a “family of systems,” the NGAD fighter will fly alongside drone “wingmen.” Earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced plans to procure at least 1,000 of these sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
As explained by Sandboxx News, “At the heart of the Collaborative Combat Aircraft concept is the need for capable artificial intelligence agents that can fly NGAD’s drone wingmen, take cues from local human operators, and even serve as advanced co-pilots inside the crewed fighter itself to help reduce the massive cognitive load pilots must manage while flying their aircraft in combat. The Air Force’s Project VENOM is among the efforts underway to make exactly that happen.”
Aviation buffs and industry experts alike are anticipating the release of more information surrounding the Air Force’s NGAD program. The new fighter has some tough shoes to fill, however, considering the legacy of the F-22 Raptor platform, NGAD could be amazing.
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.