NGAD: The Air Force's sixth-generation stealth fighter is already in the air

NGAD: The Air Force’s sixth-generation stealth fighter is already in the air, albeit hidden from public view, and little or nothing is known of this top secret or “black” program.

NGAD is here 

Leaders in the armed forces have expressed early optimism about the project due to the new fighter’s successful first flight, which came several years ahead of schedule thanks in large part to the use of digital engineering tools.

Although details of its stealth configuration, weaponry, and mission systems are not likely to be available, senior Air Force commanders have debated the operating concepts of the rapidly evolving Next Generation Air Dominance effort.

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NGAD: Why the USAF’s new sixth-generation fighter is so important.

One of the critically important key concepts for the program is closely aligned with Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s “operational imperatives,” concepts, and strategic objectives for the force as it moves into decades to come.

According to Kendall and others in charge of NGAD, the objective is to build the platform as a “family of systems” using drones and manned-unmanned teaming technology. Kendall stated last year at the Air Force Association Symposium that NGAD could pilot five or six drones simultaneously.

The 6th generation “trusty wingmen” drones, called Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), are already being designed and built as support aircraft for a “family” of NGAD systems.

NGAD: The Air Force's sixth-generation stealth fighter is already in the air
NGAD concept

It is clear to service chiefs that the conceptual intent of the 6th generation family is to enable strike operations against advanced and highly sophisticated enemy air defenses, aircraft, and weapon systems in what is often referred to as a “contested” environment. Survivability in high-level great power warfare is the foundation of 6th-generation designs and operational concepts.

“We need an aircraft that can operate in denied airspace and make sure that we have the ability to establish freedom of maneuver. We have had successful unmanned platforms for decades. It is quite a challenge to have a platform capable of operating in denied airspace”, Andrew Hunter, Air Force Acquisitions Executive, declared last fall at the AFA.

Because they will be networked with one other and with a command and control manned aircraft, the potential for numerous CCAs working in close coordination with a “host,” manned aircraft presents new tactical possibilities.

By eliminating the need for data transmission to a ground station, remote drone control can significantly speed up time-sensitive data and cut down on the lag time between sensors and shooters.

NGAD: The Air Force's sixth-generation stealth fighter is already in the air
IMGAE: Lockheed Martin

For instance, a cutting-edge armed drone may locate and kill enemy targets without direct involvement from its human operator, thanks to its autonomous target identification and onboard computer processing. 

Advanced algorithms and AI-based data processing can analyze many mission variables from otherwise disparate or separate streams of sensor information.

CCAs will need to be less expensive and more resilient. They will carry out high-risk missions over enemy territory, such as forward surveillance, covering or overloading enemy air defenses, and even carrying out targeted strikes. By human beings in a command and control capacity. In this regard, Kendall added that a one-man, sixth-generation aircraft could, at some point, control mini-attack drones.

“You can think of him (the manager) as a quarterback or a game director for that formation. And you can equip those murderous mobs with various mission systems and sensors, including any weapon… and you can employ them creatively and create a difficult problem for the adversary,” Kendall said at the Air Force Association Symposium. Airways of 2022.

NGAD: The Air Force's sixth-generation stealth fighter is already in the air
File Image: The US Air Force Research Laboratory released a sixth-generation NGAD aircraft concept.

The Air Force may create two NGAD “variants”—one for Europe and one for the Pacific—each tailored to a distinct operational theater. A Pacific-based NGAD would benefit from increased fuel capacity so that it can cover great distances and yet “dwell” or assault options during its mission.

A European variant, by contrast, could be built to be smaller and faster since the countries on the continent are quite close together. There is no doubt that having two different airframes would be in line with the concept of a “family of systems.”