The Air Force 6th-generation stealth fighter jet is airborne, although hidden from public view and little to nothing is known about the highly secretive or “black” program.
Here Comes NGAD
The fact that the new jet has already taken to the skies, years ahead of schedule due in large measure to successful digital engineering applications, has generated initial comments showing great optimism for the effort from service leaders.
While details about its stealth configuration, weapons and mission systems are not likely available, senior Air Force leaders have discussed concepts of operation for the fast-evolving Next Generation Air Dominance effort.
One of the key concepts of critical importance to the program is aligned closely with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s “operational imperatives,” strategic concepts and goals for the force as it surges into future decades.
The idea for NGAD, Kendall and other service officials have explained, is to develop the platform as a “family of systems” empowered by drones and manned-unmanned teaming technologies.
Last Fall at the Air Force Association Symposium, Kendall said the expectation is that the NGAD will control as many as five or six drones from the air at one time.
The 6th-generation “loyal wingman” drones, called Combat Collaborative Aircraft (CCA), are already being designed and built as companion support aircraft for an NGAD “family” of systems.
Service leaders are clear that the conceptual intent of the 6th-generation family is to enable attack operations against highly sophisticated advanced enemy air defenses, aircraft and weapons systems in what’s often called a “contested” environment. Survivability in high-end, great power war is the basis for 6th-generation designs and concepts of operation.
“We need an aircraft that can perform operations in denied airspace and make sure we have the ability to establish freedom of maneuver. We’ve had successful uncrewed platforms going back decades. It’s challenging to have a platform able to operate in denied air space,” Air Force Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter said Last Fall at AFA.
The prospect of multiple, networked CCAs working in close coordination with a manned “host” plane introduces new tactical possibilities, in large measure because they will be networked to one another as well as to a manned aircraft performing command and control.
Controlling drones from the air will of course reduce latency by not needing to send data through a ground station, streamline time-sensitive data and massively shorten sensor-to-shooter time.
An armed forward drone, for instance, could autonomously identify a target, use onboard computer processing and enable a human decision-maker to find and destroy enemy targets from safe stand-off distances. Advanced algorithms and AI-enabled data processing can analyze a host of mission variables from otherwise disparate or separated streams of incoming sensor information.
The CCA’s will need to be lower cost and attritable as they will perform extremely high-risk missions over enemy territory such as forward surveillance, blanketing or overwhelming enemy air defenses and even conducting attacks with weapons when directed by humans in a command and control capacity. On this point, Kendall added that a single-manned 6th-generation aircraft may at some point control mini drone attack drones.
“You can think of him (pilot) as a quarterback or a play caller for that formation. And you can equip those killer crowds with a variety of mission systems and sensors, including any weapons…..and you can employ these very creatively and create a very difficult problem for the adversary,” Kendall said at the 2022 Air Force Association Symposium.
It is also possible that the Air Force will engineer two distinct NGAD “variants” intended for specific operational environments such as Europe and the Pacific. An NGAD operating in the Pacific would benefit from larger fuel tanks enabling it to travel great distances while still having “dwell” time or operational attack options during a mission. A European variant, by contrast, might be built to be smaller and faster as countries on the continent are quite close together.
Certainly having two distinct airframes would align closely with the “family of systems” concept.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs 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.