The US Air Force has built and flown a mysterious full-scale prototype of its future fighter jet

by Valerie Insinna | Defense News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown at least one prototype of its enigmatic next-generation fighter jet, the service’s top acquisition official confirmed to Defense News on Sept. 14.

The development is certain to shock the defense community, which last saw the first flight of an experimental fighter during the battle for the Joint Strike Fighter contract 20 years ago. With the Air Force’s future fighter program still in its infancy, the rollout and successful first flight of a demonstrator was not expected for years.

“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Will Roper told Defense News in an exclusive interview ahead of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

Almost every detail about the aircraft itself will remain a mystery due to the classification of the Next Generation Air Dominance program, the Air Force’s effort for fielding a family of connected air warfare systems that could include fighters, drones and other networked platforms in space or the cyber realm.

Roper declined to comment on how many prototype aircraft have been flown or which defense contractors manufactured them. He wouldn’t say when or where the first flight occurred. And he refused to divulge any aspect of the aircraft’s design — its mission, whether it was uncrewed or optionally crewed, whether it could fly at hypersonic speeds or if it has stealth characteristics.

Those attributes, he said, are beside the point.

The importance, Roper said, is that just a year after the service completed an analysis of alternatives, the Air Force has proven it can use cutting-edge advanced manufacturing techniques to build and test a virtual version of its next fighter — and then move to constructing a full-scale prototype and flying it with mission systems onboard.

“This is not just something that you can apply to things that are simple systems” like Boeing’s T-7 Red Hawk trainer jet, the first Air Force aircraft to be built using the “holy trinity” of digital engineering, agile software development and open architecture, Roper said.

“We’re going after the most complicated systems that have ever been built, and checked all the boxes with this digital technology. In fact, [we’ve] not just checked the boxes, [we’ve] demonstrated something that’s truly magical.”

Now, the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD, sits at a decision point. Roper declined to say how quickly the Air Force could move its next-gen fighter into production, except to say “pretty fast.” But before the service decides to begin producing a new generation of fighters, it must determine how many aircraft it will commit to buy and when it wants to start purchasing them — all choices that could influence the fiscal 2022 budget.

The program itself has the potential to radically shake up the defense industry. Should the Air Force move to buy NGAD in the near term, it will be adding a challenger to the F-35 and F-15EX programs, potentially putting those programs at risk.

And because the advanced manufacturing techniques that are critical for building NGAD were pioneered by the commercial sector, the program could open the door for new prime contractors for the aircraft to emerge — and perhaps give SpaceX founder Elon Musk a shot at designing an F-35 competitor.

“I have to imagine there will be a lot of engineers — maybe famous ones with well-known household names with billions of dollars to invest — that will decide starting the world’s greatest aircraft company to build the world’s greatest aircraft with the Air Force is exactly the kind of inspiring thing they want to do as a hobby or even a main gig,” Roper said.

The disclosure of a flying full-scale fighter prototype could be just what the Air Force needs to garner more financial support from Congress during a critical time where the service is facing budget constraints and needs to gain momentum, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

“If you can quickly get to something and show progress through product, it just changes the whole dynamic for the Hill,” she said. “[Roper has] got so many headwinds, it seems this would be a likely avenue to show conceptual success for his ideas.”

A radical new acquisition

Flying a prototype of its future fighter was the easy part. Now the Air Force must choose whether to commit to a radical method of buying it.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. industrial base has dwindled from 10 manufacturers capable of building an advanced fighter to only three 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-rate production has stretched from a matter of years to multiple decades.

The result is that every fighter program becomes existential for companies, who fight to prove that they can meet technical requirements during the development and production phase at a lower cost than their competitors. The companies are finally able to turn a profit during the later years of a program, when they become locked in as sustainment providers with the technical knowledge necessary for upgrading, repairing and extending the life of their product — often with little congressional interest or scrutiny.

“The sustainment account is a black hole that nobody understands. The [operation and maintenance] account is a black hole that no one can figure out,” Eaglen said. “The person who can change sustainment can change the acquisition game, writ large.”

For the Air Force, the turning point is when an aircraft hits 15 years old. At that age, maintenance costs compound rapidly, growing another 3-7 percent every year, Roper wrote in a Sept. 15 document titled “Take the Red Pill: The New Digital Acquisition Reality.”

But what if instead of spending significant funds on sustaining old jets, the Air Force used that money to buy new ones?

Instead of buying a large quantity of a single fighter over decades and retaining each plane for 30 years or more — as is currently the norm — the “Digital Century Series” model, proposed by Roper, posits that advanced manufacturing and software development techniques make it possible for the Air Force to rapidly develop and buy aircraft more frequently, much as the service did during the 1950s when it bought six fighters from six companies just years apart from each other during the original Century Series.

In August, Air Force’s advanced aircraft program office completed a business case analysis of the Digital Century Series model meant to validate whether the idea was technically feasible and, more importantly, whether it could save money.

Leaders found that by applying digital manufacturing and development practices — as used by the T-7 program, as well as in the development of the NGAD prototype — it could drop the total life cycle cost of a next-gen fighter by 10 percent over 30 years compared to legacy fighters like the F-35 and F-15, Roper wrote.

But for the same price as a single variant of a digitally manufactured fighter produced with a 30-year life cycle, the Air Force could buy a new fighter every eight years and replace them after 16 years — before the plane reaches the 3,500 flight-hour mark here it starts needing heavy overhauls and expensive modifications to extend its service life.

“I don’t think it’s smart thinking to build one and only one aircraft that has to be dominant for all missions in all cases all the time,” he said. “Digital engineering allows us to build different kinds of airplanes, and if we’re really smart … we ensure smart commonality across the fleet — common support equipment, common cockpit configurations, common interfaces, common architecture, even common components like a landing gear — that simplify the sustainment and maintenance in the field.”

The main difference is that the Air Force would flip from spending the majority of fighter program costs upfront instead of at the end of the aircraft’s life. To continuously design new fighter jets, the service would keep multiple vendors constantly under contract for the development of new planes, choosing a new design about every eight years. To make a business case that is profitable for industry, it would then buy batches of about 50-80 aircraft every year.

The result is a 25 percent increase in development costs and an 18 percent increase in production costs. However, the price of modernizing aircraft would drop by 79 percent while sustainment costs are basically cut in half, Roper wrote in the paper.

“I can’t make both ends of the life cycle go away; industry has to make a profit somewhere,” Roper said. “And I’m arguing in the paper that if you get to choose what color of money you use for future air superiority, make it research, development and production because it’s the sharp point of the spear, not the geriatric side that consumes so much of our resources today.”

There is also a strategic benefit to continuous fighter production and development, Roper said. It puts China on the defense, having to respond to U.S. technical advances as new capabilities — whether they’re hypersonic missiles or drone wingmen — are matured and spiraled into the fighter’s production.

“This speeds up the pace at which we can do things so that we can be the disrupter instead of the disrupted, but it does so in a way that can’t be undermined by throwing cheap labor at the problem,” he said.

The next step is for Air Force leadership to decide how much it can afford for the program in FY22 and whether it will adopt the Digital Century Series model for developing the aircraft.

“What we need to do going forward is simply understand the [Department of the Air Force’s] level of financial commitment and the date they want us to charge towards for initial operations, and we can fit the acquisition strategy for [NGAD] to it, and explain how quickly we can afford to spiral and when we need to retire the aircraft to generate enough savings to afford those spirals,” he said.

“Perhaps getting to the fastest [initial fielding date] may not be the most important thing. It may be important for us to push the [technical] boundaries more. Those are decisions that I’ve given for leadership to think about. But every decision I’ve given them is a better decision over the legacy ones.”

If the Air Force is going to get financial support for a business plan that requires taxpayers to pay a higher upfront cost for fighter aircraft, it must clearly identify desired combat capabilities, said Rebecca Grant, an aerospace analyst with IRIS Independent Research.

“Now we have the F-35, F-15EX and the Digital Century Series’ small batch costs,” she said. “If it’s that great, maybe it’s worth the upfront cost. I could argue that, for sure. Is this the new F-117, which was similar batch size at similar cost and worth every penny? We just don’t know.”

On the technical side, the Air Force needs to solidify a rigorous, standardized method of conducting test activities in a virtual environment using modeling and simulation tools that can cut down the amount of time needed for live flight tests. It also needs industry to buy in to coding via a government-owned computing environment, Roper said.

“We can’t have every industry partner creating their own mechanism,” Roper said. “We have to have just as rigorous a process for digital design and assembly as we do for physical design assembly. So we will own that in the government, we will certify that in the government.”

And — perhaps most critically — the Air Force will have to sell the concept to Congress. Roper has briefed staff members on the defense committees, and he held classified sessions with many of the lawmakers who sit on those panels to present findings of the business case study as well as the detailed progress of NGAD development and test activities.

“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,” he acknowledged. “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.”

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The Air Force Has Already Flown a Secret Plane That Could Be Its Next Fighter

by Oriana Pawlyk |

The U.S. Air Force has quietly built and flown a brand-new aircraft prototype that could become its next-generation fighter, the service’s top acquisition official announced Tuesday.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, revealed during the virtual 2020 Air, Space and Cyber conference that the new aircraft is part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which defies the traditional categorization of a single platform, featuring a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.

Read Next: Air Force Cargo Planes Could Get New Job in the Fight

“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,” he said. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world.”

During a roundtable with reporters, Roper declined to give specifics on the project, except that the craft was created using digital engineering, which allows the service to bypass the regular manufacturing process for parts and gives developers more flexibility to design and change blueprints. The service announced Monday that any weapon made using digital concepts will have an “e-” prefix in an effort to showcase these innovative processes.

The new aircraft has “broken a lot of records and is showing digital engineering isn’t a fluke,” Roper said. He declined to comment on whether the defense industry has taken part in the endeavor.

While he touted the expedited process of digital methods, “we don’t want our adversaries to know what they are,” Roper added.

The news comes four years after the Air Force laid out initial plans for what its future fighter jets might look like.

During the 2019 Paris Air Show, Roper said discussions were ongoing within the service about the need for a proposed sixth-gen fighter concept, which could be the successor to the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or something more elaborate. That October, the service cut the ribbon on the “Program Executive Office for Advanced Aircraft” during a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The Air Force hopes to move fast on its futuristic projects. Roper last year debuted the Digital Century Series acquisition model, with the goal of using interconnectable, agile software and competitive technology prototyping to put together a combat-ready fighter jet in an estimated five years’ time. The service recently finished a business case analysis on the model’s validity, according to Defense News.

The Navy last month revealed that it has established its own NGAD program office in an effort to speed up the fielding of a new fighter prior to the 2030s, according to USNI News. But plans and discussions with industry are in the very early stages, USNI said.

The Air Force has proven it can accelerate and manufacture aircraft: The first “Century Series” aircraft initiative debuted in the 1950s and produced fighter-bomber variants such as the F-100 Super Sabre, which took roughly two and a half years to develop.

While many envision a futuristic manned fighter as a successor to today’s fifth-generation platforms, Roper has said the NGAD program could include fighters and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side.

For example, the autonomous Skyborg — which aims to pair artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet — is intended for reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission; the drones are considered “attritable,” or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.

In July, the service chose Boeing Co., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. to move forward on the Skyborg program.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Related: Air Force Launches Office to Plan Future Fighter Jets

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The Air Force Secretly Designed, Built, and Flew a Brand-New Fighter Jet

by Kyle Mizokami | Popular Mechanics

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

From Popular Mechanics

  • The U.S. Air Force announced it has already flown a new prototype fighter.
  • We know virtually nothing about the new plane … other than it exists.
  • Most observers did not expect a new fighter for another decade.

The U.S. Air Force revealed this week that it has secretly designed, built, and tested a new prototype fighter jet. The fighter, about which we know virtually nothing, has already flown and “broken records.” (The image above is Air Force concept art from 2018). The Air Force must now consider how it will buy the new fighter as it struggles to acquire everything from intercontinental ballistic missiles to bombers.

✈ You love badass planes. So do we. Let’s nerd out over them together.

The Air Force’s head of acquisition, Will Roper, made the announcement yesterday in an exclusive interview with Defense News, in conjunction with the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space, and Cyber Conference.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency – Getty Images

The Air Force built the new fighter under its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which aims to build a jet that would supplement, and perhaps even replace, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

The Air Force built 186 Raptors, of which only about 123 are capable of the jet’s full spectrum of combat roles. And at current readiness levels, only around 64 of the fifth-generation fighters are ready to fight at a moment’s notice.

According to Defense News, the Air Force developed the new fighter in about a year—a staggeringly short amount of time by modern standards. The Air Force first developed a virtual version of the jet, and then proceeded to build and fly a full-sized prototype, complete with mission systems. This is in stark contrast to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The X-35, an early technology demonstrator, first flew in 2000, four years after Lockheed Martin signed the contract to build it. It might be better, however to compare this new mystery jet to the first actual F-35 fighter, which flew in 2006.

That means it took the Air Force just one year to get to the point with NGAD fighter that it reached in 10 years with the F-35. This appears to be the “record” the Air Force claims the new plane is smashing, and it’s probably right.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

We don’t know which defense contractor designed and prototyped the new jet, though it’s almost certainly one of the big aerospace giants (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing). We don’t know where it flew and where it is now. We don’t know how many prototypes exist. We don’t know what it looks like, what it’s called, how fast it flies, how maneuverable it is, and what special capabilities it has. We don’t know anything.

So what do we do when we don’t know anything? Speculate wildly!

The Air Force designed the NGAD to ensure the service’s “air dominance” in future conflicts versus the fighters of potential adversaries. The new fighter, then, is almost certainly optimized for air-to-air combat. It’s a safe bet the fighter uses off-the-shelf avionics, engines, and weapons borrowed from other aircraft, such as the F-35 and F/A-18E/F. In fact, NGAD may look a lot like one of these fighters, though if the Air Force wanted a stealthy design to riff off, there’s only one (F-35) currently in production.

Photo credit: Barcroft Media – Getty Images

The most interesting, and perhaps revolutionary, thing about NGAD is that the Air Force developed and built it in just one year. The world hasn’t seen such a short development time since World War II. In fact, the trend has been for fighters to require longer, more expensive development times as technology becomes more complex—particularly with the adoption of stealth.

China’s Chengdu J-20 fighter, for example, broke cover in 2011 after at least 10 years of development time, while Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon” fighter still hasn’t entered production, despite the fact that we first saw it in 2010.

The possibility that a 10-year development cycle has been sheared to just one year presents unprecedented opportunities. If the Air Force and industry can design a new fighter in one year, it could come up with all sorts of cool new planes.

This could encourage the development of more exotic, riskier designs that contractors would not otherwise want to devote a full decade to develop. The ability to fail—or succeed—faster will drive innovation in the world of fighter jets in ways not seen for a half century or more.

Photo credit: Xinhua News Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Xinhua News Agency – Getty Images

One thing we can be reasonably sure about the new NGAD fighter? It’s designed to kill fighters like the J-20 and Su-57.

The Air Force first conceived the F-22 Raptor in the late 1980s and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the 1990s. China and Russia built the J-20 and Su-57, respectively, with the F-22 and F-35 in mind, while the American fighters would have to adapt their existing capabilities to face the new Russian and Chinese fighters. But thanks to the Air Force’s new breakthrough design techniques, we could see a new, operational fighter to dominate these potential adversaries very, very shortly.

Still, NGAD enters a crowded shopping basket. Over the next 10 years, the Air Force is committed to buying and developing, if necessary, the F-35 Joint Strike FighterF-15EX Advanced EagleB-21 Raider strategic bomberT-7 Red Hawk jet trainerKC-46 Pegasus tanker, and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ballistic missile.

How will it pay for all of them? That’s to be determined. But given the Air Force’s bent toward air-to-air fighters, it seems certain NGAD will advance to the top of that list.

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