Secret, multi-agency X-plane paved the way for NGAD program
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed at the POLITICO Defense Summit on Nov. 14 that there was a secret, multi-agency X-plane program to explore future fighters that paved the way for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
NGAD flying prototypes
As reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, Kendall’s new remarks provided more details about the highly classified project, including the agencies involved, some of the money spent, and the fact that the NGAD will control the uncrewed fighters escorting it. As already explained, other Air Force officials have previously said there were flying prototypes before the current stage of the NGAD program. Kendall also pointed out that the uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program won’t get started until the fiscal 2024 defense bill is passed.
As already reported the Department of the Air Force (DAF) released in May a classified solicitation to industry for an engineering and manufacturing development contract for the NGAD platform with the intent to award a contract in 2024. Kendall previously said the NGAD will cost “multiple hundreds of millions” of dollars per tail.
He said that what most excites him about the NGAD is the inclusion of a “family of systems” in the program, which includes autonomous escort platforms, new weapons—including the secret AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (which we’ll get into production in the next few years) —and “offboard sensors.”
Kendall added that while he was undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics in 2014 “we commissioned a study” led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called “The Dominance Initiative.”
A “family of systems”
The study recommended a “family of systems” to accompany the crewed fighter that will succeed the F-22 and it lasted a year or so.
Kendall explained that the Next Generation Air Dominance X-plane program was started in 2015. It was funded for about $1 billion and the costs were split—a third by DARPA, a third by the Air Force and a third by the Navy.”
He also said that the program “produced some prototypes that were successful demonstrating the technologies we need,” his words suggesting there were competitive designs in that stage of the project, but he did not disclose whether there were two, three, or more.
NGAD, F/A-XX and CCA
As already reported, while industry sources have said that Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been involved in USAF NGAD, Northrop Grumman announced on Jul. 27, 2023 that won’t compete to be the prime contractor on the NGAD fighter program, but indicated it remains open to competing on a further-out US Navy sixth-generation fighter program (F/A-XX) the US Air Force’s CCA program. The services have said they are not attempting a joint program like the F-35.
As already explained, a new fighter jet prototype that could become the USAF top combat aircraft has been secretly built and flown by the service, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics Dr. Will Roper revealed on Sep. 15, 2020 during the virtual 2020 Air, Space and Cyber conference. On Sep. 18 of the same year the US Air Force Material Command (AFMC) revealed the (delta) shape of a new aircraft thought to be that of USAF NGAD in a tweet that celebrated the 73rd birthday of the service.
Roper said that the NGAD features a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment, defying the traditional categorization of a single platform.
However, Roper didn’t explain how many, or that the flying demonstrators were “X-planes.” According to Air & Space Force Magazine, the term “X-planes” generally indicates platforms that are exploring new, previously unfielded technologies on an air platform, while a “Y-plane” is generally a prototype of a specific platform which, with some refinement, will be put in production.
X-35 Vs X-32
The Pentagon selected the F-35 at the conclusion of an X-plane competition between Lockheed Martin, with the X-35, and Boeing, which offered the X-32. Those X-planes explored combining supersonic flight with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities and stealth, as well as new manufacturing techniques.
Kendall also added that the CCA is slated to receive $5.8 billion in funding over the next five years. He added that it is “one of the most important [programs] I’m waiting on funding for.” Production will come toward the end of the five-year cycle, around fiscal 2028.
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Rodrigo Avella