The Importance of Air Dominance in Times of War10 October 2023
The Rise of Drones in Armed Forces11 October 2023
The US Air Force has secretly developed and tested a full-scale prototype of its next-generation fighter jet. This unexpected revelation could shake up the defense industry, opening up new possibilities and changing traditional approaches to aircraft acquisition.
On September 14, the US Air Force shocked the defense community by confirming that it had secretly designed, built and flown at least one prototype of its future next-generation fighter aircraft. This news is all the more surprising given that the Air Force’s fighter program is still in its infancy, and no one expected to see a demonstrator in flight so soon. This technological breakthrough could have far-reaching consequences for the defense industry, military budgets and the way fighter aircraft are designed and procured.
Mystery surrounds the New Aircraft
Almost every detail about the aircraft in question remains a mystery due to the classification of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which aims to deploy a family of interconnected air warfare systems, including fighters, drones and other networked platforms in space or cyberspace. Air Force officials have not revealed how many prototypes have been built, nor which defense contractors manufactured them. Nor have they disclosed details of the aircraft’s design, mission, ability to fly at hypersonic speeds or stealth characteristics.
However, according to Will Roper, head of Air Force procurement, these details are not essential at the moment. What is important is the demonstration of the Air Force’s ability to use advanced manufacturing techniques to build and test a full-scale prototype. This achievement marks a significant technological breakthrough.
Impact on the defense industry
The Next Generation Air Dominance program could radically disrupt the defense industry. If the Air Force decides to acquire the NGAD quickly, it could jeopardize the existing F-35 and F-15EX programs. What’s more, the advanced manufacturing techniques used to build the NGAD could open the door to new fighter design contractors, including private-sector players such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
The revelation of the full-scale flying fighter prototype could also help the Air Force secure increased financial support from Congress at a critical time when the service is facing budget constraints. This breakthrough could demonstrate tangible progress and strengthen Roper’s position in advocating its ideas.
A New Approach to Acquisition
Designing and flying the prototype was just the first step. Now, the Air Force must decide how to acquire this aircraft in a radically different way. Over the past 50 years, the American industrial base has shrunk from 10 manufacturers capable of building an advanced fighter to just three major defense companies: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. The time it takes the Air Force to move a new fighter from research and development to full-scale production has gone from a few years to several decades.
Will Roper’s proposed “Digital Century Series” approach suggests that advanced manufacturing techniques and software development enable the Air Force to develop and purchase aircraft more frequently. Instead of purchasing a large quantity of a single fighter model over several decades, the Air Force would maintain several suppliers on permanent contract for the development of new aircraft, choosing a new design every eight years or so. This would increase development and production costs, but significantly reduce maintenance costs.
This new approach also offers strategic advantages by forcing potential adversaries, such as China, to respond to American technical advances on a constant basis. This could give the Air Force an edge in military technology.
Challenges and future steps
The Air Force will face several challenges in implementing this new acquisition approach. It will need to standardize virtual test methods and obtain industry buy-in for design through a government computing environment. In addition, it will be necessary to convince Congress of the importance of this new approach and obtain financial support for the higher initial costs.
The next big step is for the Air Force leadership to decide how much money it can devote to the program in 2022, and whether or not to adopt the Digital Century Series model for aircraft development. This decision will have long-term implications for the way the Air Force acquires and maintains its fighter aircraft.
The revelation of the flight prototype of the next U.S. Air Force fighter is a major technological breakthrough that could be a game-changer for the defense industry. This innovative approach to aircraft acquisition could enable the Air Force to stay ahead of its adversaries and reduce maintenance costs over the long term. However, it will require Congressional support and industry buy-in to succeed.
Fly a jet fighter is the fighter jet experience specialist.