The US Air Force (USAF) has stunned the aerospace world by secretly building and flying the first ever sixth-generation jet fighter prototype. The news was revealed by Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Dr Will Roper to highly-respected Defense News air warfare reporter Valerie Insinna in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records doing it,” he told Insinna. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
This was the first flight of an American experimental fighter for 20 years. The previous time had been during the development of what had then been called the Joint Strike Fighter, a competition that had been won by the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The new prototype is a product of the USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance programme. Almost nothing about this new fighter has been revealed. Not its primary mission (air-to-air or air-to-ground or both equally), not its design, not whether it was crewed, optionally crewed or uncrewed, not if it was a stealth design or not, and not if it was hypersonic or not.
Nor did Roper reveal the number of prototype aircraft that have been, or are being, built, not how many have flown, nor the date of the first flight. He did not even reveal its designation nor its manufacturer.
He affirmed that focusing on those issues missed the point. The crucial thing was that, following the conclusion of an analysis of alternatives, it had taken the USAF just one year to use the latest advanced design and manufacturing methods to first develop and test a virtual model of the new fighter and then build a full-scale prototype complete with its mission systems. This was what could be done using digital engineering, agile software development and open architecture, he highlighted.
“We’re going after the most complicated systems that we have ever built, and checked all the boxes with this digital technology,” he said. “In fact [we’ve] not just checked the boxes, [we’ve] demonstrated something that’s truly magical.”
These new design and manufacturing processes, developed in the commercial sector, promised to revolutionise the design and manufacture of combat aircraft. Not only could it allow the design, development, flight test and start of manufacture of new fighters in a matter of years instead of the currently required decades, it could also open the industry to totally new players.
“I have to imagine there will be a lot of engineers – maybe famous ones with well-known household names with billions of dollars to invest – that will decide starting the world’s greatest aircraft company to build the world’s greatest aircraft with the Air Force is exactly the kind of inspiring thing they want to do as a hobby or even a main gig,” pointed out Roper. (Insinna gave South African-born Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, as a potential example.)
Such a development would allow the USAF to deploy new fighter designs every 10 to 15 years. This would massively reduce the service’s maintenance expenses, as the cost of maintaining fighters starts to rapidly increase once they are more than 15 years old.
Roper would not reveal when the new fighter would be put into production, only saying that it would be “pretty fast”. Nor would he reveal likely production numbers.