A senior USAF official has revealed the service is embarking on a development fast-track of its next generation air dominance (NGAD) fighter.
Speaking at the annual USAF Association (AFA) symposium on September 15, assistant secretary of the USAF for acquisition, technology, and logistics, Will Roper revealed development of the NGAD was already underway, and that a concept demonstrator was already flying.
“NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing,” Roper said in a video presentation. “A lot of the mission systems that we require, for next generation air dominance have been flown on test articles. So, they are coming along very well.”
Although he revealed no details about the technology demonstrator including who had built it, or where it was being tested, Roper did reveal that much of the system’s test program was being conducted virtually. “NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world, exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results.”
This concept demonstrator may be a current fighter-sized airframe adapted with some of the new technologies, or a commercial derivative with federated sensors and communications grafted on, and in-flight flight-test engineers doing real-time testing from cabin consoles. Both the F-22 and F-35 programs used commercial aircraft derived from 757, BAC 1-11 and 737 airframes during their development.
Rather than being an individual aircraft as so many have reported, NGAD will reportedly be a system of advanced sensors, weapons, communications, and airframes. While concept art may show ‘sixth generation’ stealthy tailless designs, there will likely be elements of NGAD distributed across new and current, manned and unmanned platforms, and embedded within the wider command and control system.
With the USAF and industry starting to demonstrate the ability of digital engineering to aid and possibly accelerate the design and development future systems, Roper decided to reveal the NGAD demonstrator to bolster the concept and the encourage a greater investment in the concept from industry.
“The whole idea of what you can digitally engineer is in question,” he said. “I’ve had many people in the Pentagon and elsewhere, say, I see how you could apply that approach to a trainer, like T-7, but you could not build a cutting-edge warfighting system that way.”
Indeed, as Secretary of the USAF Barbara Barrett announced on September 14, any new systems designed using this digital design concept will be given a new designation prefix during their development. Thus, the Boeing T-7A is now known as the eT-7A.