The Air Force's secret 6th-generation 'fighter' is now officially in development

The United States Air Force is now officially developing its 6th-gen fighter
Christopher McFadden
Early design for a sixth-generation fighter from Boeing, circa 2013.Boeing/Wikimedia Commons

In defense news, it has been officially announced that the United States Air Force is developing its next-generation (sixth-generation) fighter.

During a Heritage Foundation event, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said, “we have now started an [engineering, manufacturing, and development] program to do the development aircraft that we’ll take into production.” 

“We think we’ll have the capability by the end of the decade," he added.

Since the program is in its early stages and is obviously Top Secret, little other information was offered at the event. What we do know is that it will be crewed and will become the centerpiece of the Air Force’s so-called Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems.

These crafts will also feature new weapons, sensors, and a variety of drones that will tag team with the new fighter.

As part of this program, the Air Force first flew a prototype version of the NGAD fighter in 2020. However, officials at the time declined to disclose information about the plane or its manufacturer.

“What we did was an experimental prototype,” Kendall explained. “We basically had an X plane program which was designed to reduce the risk of some of the key technologies that we would need for a production program.”

The recent announcement is probably an indication that the Air Force has settled on a winning design by a single prime contractor, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with AeroDynamic Advisory.

This contractor is also, as yet, unknown, but good bets are the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman.

The latter, however, is very busy with the B-21 bomber, so it may not be feasible for them to take on a new ambitious project like developing a new fighter. According to industry experts like Aboulafia, the most likely scenario is to have Lockheed Martin lead the project since they already have tons of experience developing the stealth-capable fifth-gen F22 and F35.

But, that shouldn't have us rule out Boeing either.

“There were rumors that Boeing was not out of it. And the rebuttal to that rumor is that they can prototype, but can they really build a clean sheet combat aircraft?” Aboulafia told Breaking Defense. “If it’s Boeing, it implies that they’ve achieved a miracle. That’s why I’d probably go with Lockheed Martin," he added.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have historically refused to comment on the subject. 

The plot thickens.

What will the US' Next Generation fighter look like?

As we stated earlier, very little information has been released to the public to date. However, Air Force senior leaders have recently teased us with some titbits.

In April, for example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told reporters that the NGAD fighter’s flight control software had been decoupled from its mission system software. This could allow it to be more easily upgraded with new technologies in the future and hints at a more modular construction approach for future aircraft.

Later in April, Kendall told lawmakers that the NGAD fighter would cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars” per plane and would be accompanied by drones and other systems that are “not as expensive and give overall mission capability.” 

But that doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know or suspect. 

However, if true, the cost of the new fighter program would likely dwarf even the incredibly expensive F-22. 

Other than that, we have no idea what to expect as yet. 

It is also unclear how or whether the new fighter will replace 183 F-22 Raptors currently in operation. If the aircraft is going to be as expensive as has been hinted at, budget constraints may restrict the ambition of the project or, indeed, the final tally of craft purchased.

“The complication there is that [Kendall] may need a full production program, but cost [per unit] might get in the way,” Aboulafia explained.

Not only that, but there are still many unknowns about the proposed fighters' capabilities, armaments, etc. 

“The biggest implication for me, if you’re bringing it to EMD, is that it’s missionized,” Aboulafia said. “It’s not just a prototype [air vehicle].”

This indicates that officials already have the answers to the big questions about the new fighter, i.e., what is its purpose? 

Hopefully, we'll be teased with more information in the coming months and years. Until then, we can only really speculate what the USAF is planning with their next-generation fighter. 

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