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NGAD: New US Air Force Stealth Fighter Could Be ‘Head Coach’ For Drones

NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.
NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.

NGAD Is What Might Come After the F-35 and F-22–  The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is destined to create a new stealth fighter for the U.S. Air Force. NGAD is the branch’s high-priority aspirational airplane. It could serve as a platform that connects manned and unmanned aerial vehicles – operating as the leader of an autonomous pilot-less “loyal wingman.” But how far along is the technology for the new airplane and will it be able to deliver on its potential?

NGAD Program Moving Forward

The NGAD is a sixth-generation warplane. The program is reportedly achieving milestones and there might even be a prototype flying already. The new fighter is highly classified, and many details are yet to have been released to the public. While specifics are few, confidence is high.

Generals Are Chomping at the Bit

The chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, General Mark Kellysaid during a September conference about the NGAD, “Do I think we’re going to field it? Yes. Do I think we’re going to build it before our adversaries? Yes. Do I know we are going to build it before them? … I would like to sleep comfortably knowing we’ve got a really good margin.”

Details About Design Are Emerging Slowly

Initial still-frame concept art of the NGAD reveals a diamond shape on one or two engines with weapons housed internally and ample ordnance to destroy ground targets. Northrop Grumman released a video ad in November that showed an aircraft that could be the NGAD. It looks like there will be room for a single pilot. The video appears to show a nose chine that merges into the fighter’s wings incorporating a stealth design.

Head Coach Concept for the NGAD Is Evolving

The airplane is believed to be able to lead a network-centric combat operation – acting like an aerial “head coach” that would integrate drones and other fighters such as the F-22 and F-35. This head coach concept will increase situational awareness in air combat and use the drones to fly out ahead for reconnaissance, share data with other manned fighters, or even to conduct air superiority and attack missions.

Drone Integration With Manned Flight Is Here

The technology of potential drone integration with NGAD is growing by the day. The manned-unmanned teaming concept is something the Air Force has dreamed about for years. The NGAD may be that platform to bring such a vision to reality.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is developing its Skyborg program that supplies an artificial intelligence “brain” to the autonomous loyal wingman concept. The software package is designed to be a force multiplier that would allow the NGAD pilot to be relieved of the burden of engaging in electronic warfare counter-measures or aerial reconnaissance and other tasks.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its X-61 Gremlin drone project that has been tested with a C-130. In a successful trial in October, a C-130 recovered the Gremlin in mid-air. DARPA is using these exercises as a proof of concept that drones can be launched and recovered from airplanes. This would be a potential job for the NGAD.

NGAD’s Loyal Wingman Has Potential to Make a Significant Impact

The loyal wingmen could fly out ahead a clear a path for safe flight of the NGAD as it maneuvers through enemy air defenses. The drones could conduct their own airstrikes while the NGAD stays out of range of anti-aircraft systems.

The NGAD head coach concept is exciting, and DARPA and the Air Force Research Lab appear to be on the pointy end of the spear for innovation that could integrate new systems for the NGAD. There is a growing appetite for airplanes that are integrated with drones, and this could be the ultimate foundational building block for the Air Force’s sixth-generation fighter.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.