6th generation combat aircraft: the US Air Force will make its choice in 2024

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The US Air Force has just sent a “classified solicitation” to the US defense industry with a view to notifying in 2024 a “development, engineering and production contract for the Next Generation Air Dominance platform”. Clearly, the NGAD or the future replacement for the F-22. This article was published on June 2, 2023 in the magazine n° 2832.

New step for the replacement of the F-22

While the F-35 is in the first years of its operational life, the replacement of the F-22 has just experienced a new stage with the sending by the US Air Force to the American manufacturers concerned of a “classi ed solicitation” with a view to notifying, next year, the contract for the development and production of the future NGAD for “Next Generation Air Dominance Platform” or the new generation air superiority aircraft. “The NGAD will be a key component of air superiority systems and will embody a generational technological leap from the F-22 it will replace,” said Frank Kendall, Secretary for the US Air Force. And to continue: “the NGAD will have an increased lethality and will have the capacity (…) to operate in highly contested operational environments. Nobody does it better than the US Air Force today but we will lose that advantage if we don’t move forward now”.

A “classified solicitation” which therefore opens the industrial selection process in 2024. operating “open architecture standards”, indicates the press release from the US Air Force for which this “acquisition strategy must allow the government (of the United States, editor’s note) “to maximize competition throughout the life cycle , to provide a broader and more responsive industrial base and to significantly reduce maintenance costs”.

The “Collaborative Combat Aircraft” not yet included

According to the US Air Force’s budget request to Congress for fiscal year ‚ 2024, nearly $2 billion should be allocated to the NGAD program. Which is a little more than what was initially estimated (see graph below). The selection that will be made in 2024 does not include the “Collaborative Combat AircraftŽ” (CCA) component and which covers different autonomous systems with missions that may also be different.Ž Like the “ŽGambit” family (four models, editor’s note) pushed by General Atomics, which also developed the MQ-20 Avenger, one of which has just performed aerial combat maneuvers with manned combat aircraft. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney engine, the MQ-20 Avenger can fly at 650 km/h, take 1,600 kg of bombs and missiles in the hold and 2,900 kg more under six external hardpoints.

For their part, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions and the US Air Force Laboratory are working on the much smaller XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, with trials launched at the end of 2022 on the basis of ‘Eglin, to continue on trials with manned aircraft. Northrop Grumman is not to be outdone with its X-47B demonstrator adapted for future maritime use, while Boeing, in addition to its MQ-25 “Stingray” for refueling and surveillance for US Navy aircraft carriers, is developing, in Australia, the MQ-28 Ghost Bat in a multi-role objective (reconnaissance, attack, protection of manned aircraft, etc.) with tests taking place from the Woomera base of the Royal Australian AirŽForce.

The needs of the US Air Force

Last March, during the last Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium, Frank Kendall assessed the needs of the US Air Force (USAF): 1,000 collaborative combat drones associated with 200 6th generation NGAD combat aircraft. A park supplemented by 300 F-35 capable of maneuvering jointly with the first. The US AirŽForce secretary was then working on the scenario of two drones associated with each combat aircraft, F-35 and NGAD. A basis for planning and helping to structure “the analysis of elements such as bases, organizational structures, training, range requirements and sustainment concepts”.

While emphasizing that “the ratio of two wing drones per combat aircraft could however evolve according to future tests, what the technology will be able to achieve and what will work best for the operational forces”. However, future drones will not be confined to the sole role of wingman of a manned combat aircraft. The USAF and the many industry partners with which it has already engaged on CCAs and other related elements of the NGAD program have already indicated “that they seek to go beyond this construction to create a more collaborative environment that could eventually allow these drones to perform various tasks with greater autonomy.”

General Atomics’ “Gambit 2” has the functions and missions of a piloted combat aircraft with its air-to-air missiles, playing the role of “first wave of attack” or “first line of defense”. The concepts have therefore not finished being refined as the tests carried out by the demonstrators in combination with the combat aircraft. As Frank Kendall reminded us, the objective is also to give the US AirŽForce greater mass than the adversary at affordable costs while preserving the piloted human resource.

A demonstrator that has been flying since 2020

Northrop Grumman has been flying a 6th generation fighter aircraft demonstrator since early 2020, with ground testing beginning in 2019. A demonstrator quickly unveiled in a company video with an overall shape of a stealth flying wing without empennage and having air inlets located above the main wing allowing them to be hidden from radar. We also clearly perceive the significant thickness of the plane, a sign of good fuel carrying capacity and large spaces dedicated to ammunition compartments, no external carrying being possible so as not to reduce stealth.

Certain elements are, on the other hand, not confirmed: general shape of the device in diamond, vertical stabilizers capable of retracting on the upper surface of the wing, refueling from above… Conversely, the location of the air intakes seem moved back compared to its previous version, a sign that there could still be several architectures between which it will be necessary to decide.

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