According to Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, the US Air Force has "quietly built and flown a brand-new aircraft prototype." Credit: AirPowerAsia.

Well well, America has kept a very big secret from us … a very big secret.

According to Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, the US Air Force has “quietly built and flown a brand-new aircraft prototype” that could become its next-generation fighter, Oriana Pawlyk of Military.com reported.

Roper offered the revelation during the virtual 2020 Air, Space and Cyber conference, pointing out that the new aircraft is part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which defies a single platform, featuring a network of advanced sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.

All that USAF mumbo-jumbo basically means, it’s new, and possibly groundbreaking.

“NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world — exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results,” he said. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world.”

During a roundtable with reporters, Roper declined to give specifics on the project, except that the craft was created using digital engineering, which allows the service to bypass the regular manufacturing process for parts and gives developers more flexibility to design and change blueprints, the report said.

Boeing concept for the Air Force’s future fighter, known as Next Generation Air Dominance. Credit: Boeing.

The new aircraft has “broken a lot of records and is showing digital engineering isn’t a fluke,” Roper said. He declined to comment on whether the defense industry has taken part in the endeavor.

While he touted the expedited process of digital methods, “we don’t want our adversaries to know what they are,” Roper added, no doubt meaning China and Russia.

The news comes four years after the Air Force laid out initial plans for what its future fighter jets might look like, the report said.

During the 2019 Paris Air Show, Roper said discussions were ongoing within the service about the need for a proposed sixth-gen fighter concept, which could be the successor to the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, or something more elaborate.

That October, the service cut the ribbon on the “Program Executive Office for Advanced Aircraft” during a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the report said.

The Air Force hopes to move fast on its futuristic projects. Roper last year debuted the Digital Century Series acquisition model, with the goal of using interconnectable, agile software and competitive technology prototyping to put together a combat-ready fighter jet in an estimated five years’ time.

A futuristic look at a sixth-generation fighter jet, from the Air Force Research Lab. Credit: AFRL.

While many envision a futuristic manned fighter as a successor to today’s fifth-generation platforms, Roper has said the NGAD program could include fighters and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side, the report said.

For example, the autonomous Skyborg — which aims to pair artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet — is intended for reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission; the drones are considered “attritable,” or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.

According to Defense News, the Digital Century Series is much different than the Air Force’s initial sixth-generation fighter project, known as Penetrating Counter Air, which the service wanted to field the early 2030s.

That jet would be part of a networked family of systems that include drones, sensors and other platforms formed after a decade of prototyping efforts.

In contrast, the Digital Century Series model would require multiple defense contractors to develop new fighter jets in a matter of years using whatever technological advances have recently emerged.

The Air Force would then downselect to a single vendor, buy a small number of aircraft and restart the process — allowing for companies to constantly be designing and producing planes.

Roper, in an interview with Defence News in June, projected that aircraft development under a Digital Century Series model could be more expensive than legacy methods due to having multiple companies under contract and requiring them to design and prototype aircraft very quickly. However, he also believes sustainment and modernization costs will be far lower.

If that theory can be proved out in the acquisition strategy, Congress might more likely agree to fund an unconventional, experimental program.

“How long we keep the aircraft is one of the variables that they are weighing [as part of the business case]. How many years make sense? It’s clearly not two, three, four, five, but we don’t want it to be 30 either. So they’re looking at that,” Roper told Defense News.

“They’re looking at the amount of modernization that would be expected — what we would expect that to cost and if it gets easier with digital tools. And then summing it all up to see whether the cost of having a lethal airplane per year is less than for the Digital Century Series model than for the traditional.”

“If it is, that is going to really help us, I hope, because we’ll show that data and argue that it is not just better from a ‘competing with China and lethality’ standpoint. It’s just better from a business standpoint,” Roper said. “If it breaks even or is less [than traditional methods], I will be exceptionally happy. If it’s more expensive — and I hope not exceptionally more — then we’re going to have to argue” on behalf of the program.

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