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NGAD: The U.S. Air Force’s Secret Plan for a New Stealth Fighter

While a few details of the in-development Next Generation Air Force Dominance (NGAD) have been released, the program is enveloped in secrecy, and progress is highly classified.

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.
Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

While a few details of the in-development Next Generation Air Force Dominance (NGAD) have been released, the program is enveloped in secrecy, and progress is highly classified.

The Air Force has made some general comments, and much speculation and conjecture have surfaced in the media, yet for security reasons, the NGAD program is not discussed in public. 

NGAD: Progress Behind Closed Doors

It is assumed that major industry players are submitting prototypes and competing for a production award, however, specifics of which companies are not available.

Major industry players have released renderings of what appears to be a 6th-generation aircraft, and the Air Force has been clear that demonstrator aircraft are already airborne. Beyond that, there is speculation about its technologies and an announcement from the Air Force about a potential contract award coming as soon as 2024. A formal Air Force statement, however, did say a formal solicitation was provided to industry slotting 2024 as a contract award time goal. 

“The Department of the Air Force released a classified solicitation to industry for an Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract for the Next Generation Air Dominance Platform with the intent to award a contract in 2024,” the Air Force release, as posted in Breaking Defense, says. The statement doesn’t specifically state when the notice was posted. “This solicitation release formally begins the source selection process providing industry with the requirements the DAF expects for NGAD, as the future replacement of the F-22.”

Details on the NGAD development are kept quiet to ensure potential adversaries do not learn about the sensitive technologies or production status of the aircraft. This being said, there are a few things the Air Force has said clearly, and one is Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s discussion of the NGAD as an “operational imperative” and “family of systems.” This much is confirmed. We know the aircraft will control drones and operate in close coordination with other key platforms such as unmanned systems. 

These unmanned systems are referred to as Collaborative Combat Aircraft, and Air Force Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter has explained that these are already underway. The concept is to rely upon industry to build lower-cost, yet highly effective drones able to test enemy air defenses, blanket areas with forward surveillance, extend command and control, and deliver weapons if needed, through the direction of a human. 

The idea of rapidly developing CCA is to extend the Air Force concept of multi-domain, meshed “node” networking to attack at the speed of relevance and make sure the sensor-to-shooter curve is shortened as much as possible. Senior Air Force commanders have described this as fighting at the “speed of relevance.” 

Manned-unmanned collaboration, for example, is fundamental to this dispersed, extended, networked future combat vision designed to enable large combat platforms to function as attack systems and as communications nodes as part of a larger, integrated, and multi-domain battlefield. 

The concept is to enable secure, real-time networking to connect any number of sensors with any soldiers on the field to enable rapid attack and to destroy an enemy before being hit. Doing this requires high-speed computing and the tactical efficiency to make rapid adjustments to changing circumstances amid combat. This requires hardened transport layer networking using RF, wireless connectivity, satellite communications such as GPS, and various datalinks to ensure otherwise disaggregated pools of information are combined, analyzed, and then quickly and accurately transmitted. 

While much is unknown about NGAD, for understandable reasons, the Air Force has been clear about a few of these things such as networking, manned-unmanned teaming, and operating as a “family of systems.” 

As for the technologies, much is unknown by design, yet the aircraft is likely to involve paradigm-changing levels of stealth technology, speed, maneuverability, and long-range sensing. The aircraft will also likely vector, maneuver, and achieve air combat superiority in ways previously unprecedented. As for timing, we know demonstrators are airborne, and we also know that applications of digital engineering techniques have helped massively expedite the maturation of the aircraft.

Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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Written By

Kris Osborn is the Military Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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