In a stunning statement given to Defense News, Dr. Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics confirmed that the Air Force is well along with their sixth-generation fighter jet program, stating that “we’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it.” Roper also signaled the non-prototype nature of the aircraft, emphasizing that the Air Force is “ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
What exactly the airframe would look like is unknown. If it would be manned or unmanned is unknown. Which aerospace company developed the airframe is also unknown. As revolutionary as the new fighter could be, what could perhaps be even more revolutionary is how the Air Force plans on buying and manufacturing the new airframe.
Digital Century Series
Roper, also known as the Air Force acquisition tsar, wants to radically change how the United States Air Force acquires new airframes—by doing what the Air Force used to do. In essence, Roper would like to rapidly design and prototype a variety of new airframes quickly rather than invest huge sums of defense dollars on staggeringly expensive airframes.
As previously explained, the speed with which Roper and the Air Force would like to acquire new fighters is quite different from the drawn out and expensive F-35 acquisition process. Not only did the F-35 program take over ten years from start to finish, it is also the most expensive American weapons program ever.
The original century series, named after the F-100 to F-106 series of airframes of 1950s and 1960s fame, resulted in a relatively diverse set of airframes that offered differing capabilities. While none of these airplanes were perfect, they were rapidly prototyped and quickly brought into service.
Roper is betting big on the so-called digital century series, and this brand new first-of-its-kind sixth-generation fighter jet could very well be a part of this strategy. If the digital century series comes to fruition, the Air Force fleet could look very different in the future. Think more and smaller batches of fighters that are incrementally better than the preceding model.
It should be acknowledged that this strategy could pose logistical challenges. Spare parts, not to mention differing capabilities could result in a very wide plethora of air platforms. Still, the benefits may outweigh the challenges.
The Future is Now
Speaking to Defense News, Roper said the following about had the following to say:
“I had some tough audiences on this. I’ve had people that I’ve been told want to cut the program or they don’t understand why we need it. But I have not left a single one of those briefings with anything other than [lawmakers saying]: ‘This is the future, we ought to do it now. And why aren’t we going faster?’ And the answer [to] why we aren’t going faster is simply money. We can push the accelerator down more today because the digital technology allows it.”
Watch this topic closely for updates about the United States’ new sixth-generation fighter jet.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.