US accelerates development of future combat aircraft

America is watching with bated breath the aftermath of the presidential election. One thing is for sure: whoever the Stars and Stripes leader is likely to have no impact on key defense programs. The only exception is a full-fledged civil war. However, the likelihood of this, despite numerous frightening forecasts, so far, fortunately, is not great (although, again, nothing can be ruled out).

Be that as it may, both Republicans and Democrats understand that in the future there will be a difficult military-technical competition with the PRC, and this requires, first of all, the latest aircraft and advanced aviation weapons.

Recently, more and more people are talking about two key promising projects at once: the development of a sixth generation fighter and the creation of a promising strategic bomber known as the B-21 Raider. First of all, the discussion concerns the likely timing of the introduction of these machines into service.

Strategic bomber

The B-21 bomber, sometimes (presumably wrongly) referred to as the “B-3”, will be the loudest premiere in the field of combat aviation in the coming years. And this is not only about the United States (USA). Of the three “strategists” of the future (which also includes the Russian PAK DA and the Chinese Xian H-20), it is he who “risks” being the first to be born.

It is not known for certain what the new car will be. The available materials suggest that the B-21 will be a stealth subsonic aircraft based on a “flying wing” aerodynamic design. Most often it is considered as a “cheaper” (and also sometimes as a “reduced”) analogue of the B-2 Spirit, since at a price of more than two billion dollars per plane, it turned out to be “unaffordable” even for the United States (USA), which was limited to a series of two a dozen of such aircraft.

When can we expect the appearance of the “Raider” (B-21 “Raider”)? Previously, information about forcing the development of the aircraft has repeatedly appeared. Last year, speaking at an event hosted by The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, US Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson announced a “countdown” function on a wristwatch that shows the moment Raider’s first flight. It turned out the beginning of December 2021.

However, the “miracle” did not happen: the coronavirus pandemic intervened in the plans here too. In September, the publication Janes (US Air Force delays first B-21 flight), citing data from the US Air Force (USAF), reported that the first flight of the B-21 (the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider) would take place no earlier than 2022 of the year.

In addition to the epidemic, there is another important factor that should also not be written off from the account. It is about the complexity of the program and the associated technical risks. Of course, no one has the same experience in developing stealth strategic bombers as Northrop Grumman (it is she who creates the B-21). However, as practice shows, no one is immune from problems.

As for the commissioning of the aircraft, the data on commissioning in the mid-2020s appearing in the open media seem overly optimistic. A more realistic time frame is the end of a decade or even the beginning of the 2030s. One way or another, the first flight prototype of the B-21 began to be built back in 2019 and, most likely, we will see the plane in the next few years.

Sixth generation

An even more important program (or rather, in the case of the West: programs) is the development of a sixth generation fighter. Such complexes are likely to become the basis of the national security of the future, not counting, of course, the nuclear triad.

It is noteworthy that until recently the United States seemed to be “outsiders” in this direction, which were losing not only to Great Britain (developing the Tempest fighter) and the conditional Franco-German alliance (developing the Future Combat Air System), but also to China.

That all changed in September when Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, announced the testing of a sixth-generation demonstrator being developed for the Air Force (USAF) under the NGAD ( Next Generation Air Dominance). In an interview with Defense News, he noted:

“We have already built and launched a full-scale flight demonstration model, and we have broken all records in this business. We are ready to start building next-generation aircraft like never before. ”

This lengthy statement raised a lot of questions. Another important aspect is noteworthy. In 2019, the same edition of Defense News in the material “The US Air Force’s radical plan for a future fighter could field a jet in 5 years” announced preparations for a radical change in the procurement strategy of new aircraft. The innovation consists in the joint participation of different companies, which, according to the data presented, should allow the development and production of a new fighter in up to five years (or even less).

I must say that, given the complexity of modern aircraft, the timing sounds almost fantastic. On the other hand, one should not forget about China, which “put on the wing” the Chengdu J-20 fighter in an extremely short period by modern standards.

“Every four or five years there will be F-200, F-201, F-202. And they will be vague and mysterious (regarding the potential of these aircraft). But it will be clear that this is a real program and that real planes are flying. And now you (the enemy) must find out: what new are we (the Americans) bringing to the battle? What has improved? How confident are you that you have the best plane to win? “

– offered his vision, US Air Force Assistant Procurement Secretary Will Roper (Will Roper).

It is difficult to say who will be the main contractor. Not so long ago, in its financial report, the Lockheed Martin Corporation hinted that it is working on a new aviation program: it is most likely about Next Generation Air Dominance.

It remains to add that in addition to NGAD, the Americans are working on another program in the field of the sixth generation. It is designated F / A-XX and is intended to provide the United States Navy (USAF) with a replacement for the fourth generation F / A-18E / F Super Hornet in about 2030.

Some observers combine NGAD and F / A-XX into one program, which (as far as can be judged) is not true. Moreover, last year, Popular Mechanics reported that a promising fighter for the Navy will be created exclusively for the Navy, and will not take into account the requirements of other types of troops in its development. Aircraft may even have a purely conceptual distinction. If Next Generation Air Dominance must certainly be able to operate in enemy airspace, then for a naval aircraft this is not the number one requirement.

In general, despite some postponements associated with the pandemic, it is clear that the United States is accelerating key programs for the Air Force. This is due to both the immediate threat from the PRC and the desire of the American military-political leadership to ensure leadership in the world in the future.

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