NGAD: sixth generation USAF fighter enters next phase of development

The US Air Force’s sixth generation fighter jet, part of its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme, has entered the next phase of development.

The jet has entered the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) phase after completing the design.

“We have now started an [engineering, manufacturing and development] programme to do the development aircraft that we’ll take into production,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at an event. “We think we’ll have the capability by the end of the decade.”

It was widely reported in 2020 that the service has flown a full-scale prototype aircraft. USAF's former top acquisition official, Will Roper, said at the time: “We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

A screenshot of a recent Northrop Grumman promotion, featuring a sixth generation fighter design not currently in development

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

In March, USAF submitted the fiscal year 2023 Budget in which $1.7bn has been earmarked for development of the sixth generation fighter. 

Little is known about the aircraft, but the Air Force dropped a big clue last year with the publication of concept art, seen at the top of this article. The image appears in a USAF biennial report for acquisition. Read the full report here.

The report says: “Next Generation Air Dominance is a family of capabilities that enable Air Superiority in the most challenging operational environments by enforcing the development pillars of digital engineering, agile software development, and open architectures. By executing shorter technology development cycles, the program matures technology and reduces risk through prototyping and operational experimentation.

“Designed to complement the F-35, F-22, joint, and partner forces in the Air Superiority role, Next Generation Air Dominance is an advanced aircraft program for development of penetrating counter air platforms with multi-domain awareness, agile resilient communications, and an integrated family of capabilities.

“The program uses a non-traditional acquisition approach to avoid traditional monolithic program schedules and exorbitant life-cycle sustainment costs. This strategy, called the Digital Century Series approach, creates a realistic business case for industry to adopt commercial best practises for key design activities – before a part is even manufactured.”

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