For several years now, the Air Force and aviation US industry is working on the NGAD (Next-Generation Air Dominance) program, the goal of which is to create the next 6th generation fighter. The appearance of such a machine is still unknown, but the program participants have repeatedly published various concepts. Recently, another similar image has got into free access.
According to known data
The source of the latter News on the NGAD program became the recent biennial procurement report of the Air Department in 2019-2020. called "Building the Digital Force". This document lists all current projects, their main features, cost and deadlines. Along with other programs, the development of a promising fighter is also mentioned.
The NGAD program page contains the most general description of the prerequisites for the emergence of the project and the expected capabilities of the new aircraft. Unlike other developments, information on the timing of the work and on their cost is not provided. At the same time, a previously unpublished image of the aircraft in the air is attached to the note, demonstrating some of the design features and operational capabilities.
The authors of the report remind that the NGAD project uses promising approaches to the design and organization of production. They will help to reduce the cost and complexity of the series and operation, as well as ensure that the required level of performance is achieved and the possibility of regular upgrades.
It should be noted that similar features of the project have been disclosed earlier, and in this regard, the biennial report does not provide any new information. Thus, in the note about the NGAD program, the illustration is of greatest interest. It shows both the proposed and completely new features of the project. However, it is not known which of them will be included in the real project, and which are simply invented by the artist.
The illustration shows an aircraft of an unusual type of integral layout with features of a flying wing and tailless. The machine has a swept wing, the nodules of which are connected to the nose of the fuselage. The wing consoles are trapezoidal in plan. The broken trailing edge slides under the control surfaces and nozzles. The aircraft has a pair of keels, and they are foldable - in some modes, they must lie in the corresponding niches on the wing.
In the nose of the aircraft there is a rudimentary fuselage of limited length, in which the cockpit is located, probably equipment compartments. On the sides of it are developed engine nacelles. The air intakes are brought out to the upper side of the wing and are protected from irradiation from below. Flat nozzles with lattice deflectors are made in a similar way. The aircraft has a pair of turbojet engines of an unknown type.
The possibility of carrying air-to-air missiles of the AIM-120 type is shown. The placement of weapons in the internal cargo hold is schematically indicated; it is located under the air intake duct.
Earlier, it was repeatedly stated that the NGAD aircraft will receive all the necessary networking capabilities and will be able to work as part of interspecific groups. This is confirmed by a new illustration - it conventionally shows communication with other aircraft or satellites.
The image of the aircraft from the Building the Digital Force report also demonstrates the proposed approaches to shaping and modernizing the aircraft. The "real" aircraft is supplemented with a virtual copy - it is proposed to use it for early testing and development of new solutions. Also shown are the principles of gradual replacement of various units and weapons in order to constantly increase their characteristics.
The dimensions, weight and performance characteristics of this NGAD version are difficult to estimate. Probably, an aircraft of this appearance will be no less than the modern F-22 and may have a large mass. Accordingly, an increase in the combat load and expansion of operational capabilities should be expected. However, information of this nature has not yet been announced.
How much the published concept corresponds to the real plans and desires of the US Air Force is unknown. However, it is quite capable of reflecting current views on the development of tactical aviation and showing some ideas from a real project. Accordingly, it becomes possible to evaluate some of the qualities of both the concept itself and the real NGAD.
First of all, the illustration for the report shows that stealth is still the key quality of the new aircraft. The structure and contours of the aircraft are formed taking into account the reduction of the reflected signal; reduced chance of being spotted from the ground. Folding keels are an interesting solution: depending on the current needs, they can lie on the wing and reduce the RCS or rise to the working position, increasing the flight and maneuverability characteristics.
The new concept provides for the preservation of the cockpit. It can be assumed that it also implies the presence of unmanned capabilities. According to various estimates, the next 6th generation fighters should receive remote or autonomous control means. The introduction of artificial intelligence is expected.
A variant of a promising fighter from Boeing
The NGAD program uses a new approach to the design and organization of production, and the disclosed concept fully reflects it. The aircraft becomes a modular complex with the ability to quickly develop and implement new components. This will affect both electronics and weapons, and other systems. In particular, the possibility of regular replacement of engines with newer ones is expected.
It is expected that new development methods will allow the aircraft to remain “at the forefront” at all times, but at the same time will simplify and reduce the cost of all stages of its life cycle. The time for the development and implementation of new modifications will be reduced, incl. the most difficult type of remotorization.
Illustrations and reality
Work on the NGAD topic has been going on for several years and has advanced quite far. In 2019, the Pentagon reviewed the proposed projects and initiated the next phase of development. In September 2020, it was reported that a technology demonstrator already exists and is being tested, repeating the main solutions of the main project. New work of one kind or another should take place right now, the results of which will be announced later.
The presence of a technology demonstrator indicates a fairly high degree of development of the project. Accordingly, a full-fledged fighter project should appear in the coming years, followed by the first prototype. When this will happen is not specified, however, the known pace of work execution allows us to make the most daring estimates.
A prototype may appear as early as 2023-25, and then the Pentagon will have to show it and reveal, at least, basic information and characteristics. Thanks to this, it will be possible to study and evaluate the finished NGAD, as well as compare the real appearance of the fighter with the published concepts - including the last one.