The Air Force is making progress with its sixth-generation aircraft initiative, called Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). It had been largely conceptual for years, but Air Force officials now say current “prototyping” and “demonstrations” are informing which technologies the service will invest in for the future.
Senior Air Force officials have said that an analysis of alternatives has been completed and that work on requirements is underway. Work includes various modeling and efforts to explore crucial hardware and software technologies.
Digital engineering continues to be a significant element of the current progress, as explained last year by Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper. As he explains it, it brings what could be called a two-fold advantage. It enables weapons developers to assess technologies, material configurations, and aircraft models without needing to build all of them—all while paradoxically enabling builders to “bend metal” and start building prototypes earlier than would otherwise be possible.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working with the acquisition community on digital engineering techniques, often explored through modeling and simulation, for many years.
Current work on a futuristic sixth-generation fighter—to come after and fly alongside upgraded F-35s—includes the development of stealthy drone fighters, hypersonic flight, lasers, new precision weaponry and advanced AI able organize targeting data in milliseconds.
While all of these things are of course key parts of the equation, the Air Force Penetrating Counter Air/NGAD program is equally focused on information exchange itself as a defining element of future war. Such an approach, looking beyond isolated systems and weapons themselves, envisions expansive “networked” combat with war platforms operating as “nodes” in a larger warfare system of weapons and sensors working together in real time.
The NGAD program, which traces its history to the Air Force’s “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan,” envisions the possibility of a “family of capabilities.”
A senior Air Force official explained that this study began by examining more than 650 different ideas for sixth-generation combat, which were then narrowed down to merely a few.
Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works and Boeing’s Phantom Works are all among a handful of industry developers already working on prototype sixth-generation planes and advanced technologies—intended to align with key elements of the Air Force vision. The Air Force itself, while not yet decided upon a particular platform or fixed set of new technologies, is moving quickly beyond the conceptual realm into the active exploration of weapons, sensors, technologies and networks.
Next-generation stealth technology is also, of course, a large focus of the technical equation. Newer radar-absorbing coating materials, improved IR suppressants or thermal signature management, evolved radar-eluding configurations and acoustic reduction technologies offer a window into current areas of developmental focus. A 2013 Essay by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee discusses the evolution of advanced heat reduction technologies built into the “skin” of an aircraft.
“To become low-observable in multiple spectrums, advanced skins manage a plane’s heat distribution to foil radar, infrared, and thermal detection systems. These skins do this by distorting or eliminating heat distribution to restructure its thermal shape. They may also be able to heat up or cool down all parts of an aircraft’s surface to perfectly match the surrounding atmosphere, making it virtually undetectable,” the report, titled “The Future of Combat Aircraft: Toward a 6th Generation Aircraft,” writes.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.