NGAD is a new combat fighter jet project after 20 years.
The U.S. Air Force’s disclosure that it has secretly built and flown a prototype fighter jet could signal a shift in how the military buys weapons and who builds them.
Will Roper, the head of Air Force acquisition, revealed the existence of the new jet, which he said was part of the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, project.
“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,” Roper said during a video presentation at the Air Force Association’s Virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Tuesday. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world. It’s broken a lot of records in the doing.”
Roper provided no more details about the jet, which is presumed to be the Pentagon’s first attempt to build a “sixth-generation” tactical aircraft after the fifth-gen F-22 and F-35 jets. He even declined to name the company or companies that built the jet.
But he said the digital design technology used to build the new plane could increase competition and increase the number of American military jet makers.
“Digital engineering is lowering overhead for production and assembly [so] you do not have to have huge facilities, huge workforces [and] expensive tooling,” Roper said on a video conference call with reporters after his presentation. “It is letting us take aircraft assembly back to where we were in the 70s and prior to it — back when we had 10 or more companies who could build airplanes for the United States Air Force, because you could do it in hangar-like facilities with small, but very good teams, of engineers and mechanics. We’re going back to that. It’s super exciting.”
Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the only two U.S. companies that currently build fighter jets.
Another reason for disclosing the NGAD project: Roper wants companies to invest more in digital design technology. In recent years, the Pentagon writ large has been trying to tap into innovation, particularly commercial technology, that could be adopted for the military.
NGAD is one of three big-ticket Air Force acquisition efforts that are counting on digital design, development, engineering and testing to rapidly upgrade capabilities and cut costs. The other two are the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and the T-7A Red Hawk trainer, the latter of which built two identical prototypes based on digital designs.
“With digital engineering, everything is sooner. So, if you get it right, everything is faster, cheaper,” Roper said. “I guess if you’re a Star Wars fan, digital engineering makes everything ‘quicker, easier and more seductive’ — but it’s certainly not the Dark Side of the Force,” he said with a laugh. “This is the virtuous, Light Side of the Force and we’re using our powers for good, so it definitely is accelerating everything beyond any expectations that we’ve had of programs in the past.”