Nex Gen Flight from USAF 17 September, 2020

The US Air Force (USAF) has flown a digitally-engineered Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) advanced aircraft flight demonstrator for the first time, the service unveiled on 15 September at the Air Force Association’s (AFA’s) annual conference.

The programme is classified and USAF leadership refused to provide details, including who developed the aircraft, any contract values, and when it might be fielded. But Will Roper, assistant secretary of the USAF for Acquisition, Technology, And Logistics (AT&L), said on 15 September that many of the mission systems that are required for NGAD have been flown on test articles. Roper spent most of his time during his presentation to both reporters and the public extolling the virtues of his digital engineering approach to NGAD and future USAF aircraft and weapons systems.

“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper told Defence News during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

Almost every detail about the aircraft itself will remain a mystery due to the classification of the Next Generation Air Dominance program, the Air Force’s effort for fielding a family of connected air warfare systems that could include fighters, drones and other networked platforms in space or the cyber realm.

Details regarding the new aircraft are shrouded in secrecy thanks to the NGAD program's classification, and Roper didn't disclose much in his conversation with Defence News beyond praise for the mysterious new aircraft's systems. Roper declined to comment on how many prototype aircraft have been flown or which defence contractors manufactured them. He wouldn’t say when or where the first flight occurred.

Now, the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD, sits at a decision point. Roper declined to say how quickly the Air Force could move its next-gen fighter into production, except to say “pretty fast.” But before the service decides to begin producing a new generation of fighters, it must determine how many aircraft it will commit to buy and when it wants to start purchasing them — all choices that could influence the fiscal 2022 budget.

And because the advanced manufacturing techniques that are critical for building NGAD were pioneered by the commercial sector, the program could open the door for new prime contractors for the aircraft to emerge — and perhaps give SpaceX founder Elon Musk a shot at designing an F-35 competitor.

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