A few weeks ago, the United States Air Force announced a new advancement in fighter aircraft. It is argued that a promising project of the next generation aircraft has been successfully brought to the stage of flight tests of a prototype technology demonstrator. No details of these works are disclosed, but this does not prevent the emergence of estimates and forecasts.
The news about the success of the NGAD (Next-Generation Air Dominance) program was announced during a regular US Air Force Association conference. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Procurement and Technology, spoke about promising technologies and the latest achievements.
According to him, a mock-up model of the future fighter designed for testing new technologies has been built and raised into the air. In parallel, a variety of instruments and systems are being tested for a full-fledged aircraft. No technical details were provided. The appearance and characteristics of the flying laboratory remain unknown.
U. Roper paid special attention to the technologies for developing a new fighter. It is being created entirely digitally, and with the use of new approaches. The project implements an open architecture of all major systems, flexible software development methods and other innovations that can affect the speed and quality of work. It was all these measures, allegedly, that allowed the development and construction of a prototype in just a year.
Demonstration of technologies
The finished flight model is considered as a technology demonstrator, but it is not specified which ones. When creating a 6th generation fighter, it is necessary to work out a number of fundamentally new solutions, systems, instruments, techniques, etc. In theory, any of these questions can now be studied using a mock-up sample.
Taking into account the timing of work on NGAD, it can be assumed that the current tests are pursuing rather modest goals, although these activities will have the most serious impact on the further stages of the program. There is reason to believe that today’s prototype aircraft is designed to demonstrate promising technologies for the development of aviation technology.
According to W. Roper, only one aircraft has been created using new technologies – the T-7 trainer. The creation of the 6th generation fighter-bomber is much more complex and may require additional experiments. It is quite possible that with the help of a new prototype, first of all, the fundamental possibility of designing complex progressive structures by the “accelerated digital” method is being tested.
If the constructed aircraft confirms the viability of new methods within the framework of a complex project, then work on NGAD will continue, and this time with the expectation of creating a full-fledged fighter. At the same time, the emergence of new flying laboratories with certain tasks is possible – the development of such technology will not take much time and money.
It is proposed to use modern digital technologies not only in design, but also in preparation for testing. For example, the assistant minister mentioned that the new prototype had been tested “in digital form” before construction. Accordingly, the range of tasks for real test flights is shrinking. The same can happen with future demonstration aircraft.
The savings in design and testing time will have obvious implications. The complete process of creating an aircraft, with all the experiments and mock-ups, will take less time, but will not lead to any losses. In addition, another option is possible: in the same time frame as now, a larger amount of work will be performed.
The main views on the future generation of fighters are already known, which makes it possible to present the main directions of promising research projects. Various demonstration aircraft can be used for searches and checks in these areas. Moreover, the existing product for the NGAD program, most likely, will also be involved in this process.
It is believed that the 6th generation fighter should be distinguished by improved stealth characteristics in all ranges, improved flight performance, more advanced electronic equipment, etc. Building on the ideas of the previous generation, such aircraft will receive “smart skin” providing all-round visibility, improved communication and control facilities, new automation systems for basic processes, etc. The possibility of creating optionally piloted vehicles is seriously being considered – depending on the task and various factors, the fighter will work with or without a pilot on board.
Since there are no data on the NGAD program demonstrator yet, it can be assumed that it is capable of solving any research problems. At the same time, the most probable is the development of a new aerodynamic appearance, providing an improved ratio of flight and stealth characteristics.
In the past, potential participants in the NGAD program have shown their options for the exterior of a promising fighter. Such “products” differ significantly even from modern aircraft of the latest generation and, apparently, their appearance needs additional verification – in digital form, in a wind tunnel and in the sky.
The Drive publishes a bold version of the goals of the NGAD program and current work with the flying laboratory. It assumes that the result of the program will not be some kind of aircraft with improved characteristics, but a full-fledged multi-purpose unified platform.
It is possible to create a tactical-class platform aircraft with a modular, incl. interchangeable target load. Such a machine will be able to be built in different modifications, each of which will have its own functions. The assembled complex will be able to perform all the intended tasks, and the unification will simplify mass production and operation. Common means of communication and control will allow different elements of the complex to work together and get maximum practical results.
Thus, in the future, the US Air Force and Navy will indeed be able to obtain a 6th generation fighter – fast, maneuverable, almost invisible and highly effective. However, this will not be an independent aircraft, but only part of a larger universal complex with a number of different manned and unmanned vehicles.
In favor of the version of The Drive is the fact that the Air Force is demanding to work out fundamentally new approaches to design. With their help, it is planned to speed up development work – which can be useful in creating a single platform and equipment based on it.
From the past to the future
In the past, US aircraft builders have repeatedly resorted to the construction of a variety of technology demonstrators and flying laboratories. In the recent past, with the help of such products, two future 5th generation fighters were created. Now such approaches are used in the context of the further development of aviation.
It is not known what the current demonstrator of the NGAD program looks like, how it is built and what is needed for it. However, it is already clear how important and valuable such a machine is for the project as a whole. At the same time, the flying laboratory is of interest not only to the customer and the developer. Information about it is awaited in foreign countries in order to evaluate the latest American works and determine their prospects. In addition, the NGAD documents will have to be reviewed by Congress to determine how current spending and future benefits are matched.