From Popular Mechanics
In September, the U.S. Air Force shocked the world when it announced it had secretly designed, built, and tested a new fighter jet—all in the astonishingly short span of just one year.
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The secret new fighter jet—if it’s even a new “fighter” at all—is part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, an Air Force project designed to supplement and eventually replace the F-22 Raptor. The Air Force has identified five major new technologies it believes will be necessary for the program. But what are they?
A new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on NGAD gives a quick rundown of the program. The secret new fighter jet, which Air Force acquisition Secretary Will Roper officially announced on September 15, is just part of a program that will likely include crewed and uncrewed aircraft, electronic warfare and cyber warfare, new weapons, and other systems. The CRS report points out that many of the goals of NGAD are top-secret:
The Air Force has said that NGAD exists to examine five major technologies that are likely to appear on next generation aircraft, with the goal of enhancements in survivability, lethality, and persistence. It has not specified what four of those technologies are.
Only one of the five major technologies is public: propulsion, or a new or modified engine. So what could the other features be?
The Air Force’s secret new fighter jet must avoid being detected on the modern aerial battlefield. One obvious suggestion is new, next-generation anti-radar stealth. Another possibility is lowering a fighter jet’s infra-red signature.
Many of today’s fighters use a nose- or pod-mounted infrared sensor to detect enemy aircraft. An aircraft warmer than the surrounding air becomes detectable to such an infrared sensor, especially the hot gasses blowing out the rear of the plane. Infrared stealth would be very useful against weapons like the Russian R-73 infrared guided missile.
One wildcard could be optical stealth, or the ability to essentially make NGAD aircraft invisible to the human eye. The U.S. military is known to have researched this technology, but it’s not clear what progress, if any, it made.
Could the technology have progressed in secret to the point it could be carried by a fighter jet? Most of America’s stealth fighters plan to open fire before the enemy is in visual range, but if the air battle devolves into a swirling dogfight, optical stealth would be very useful indeed.
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The secret new fighter jet must be able to shoot down enemy aircraft, particularly at long range. The Air Force is reportedly developing a new long-range, air-to-air missile, the AIM-260, to equip the F-35 and other jets. The AIM-260 is designed to “out-stick” Russian and Chinese fighters, like the Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon” and Chengdu J-20, shooting them down before their American opponents come within range of their own missiles.
Another possibility is an air-to-air laser capable of not only shooting down enemy fighters, but incoming missiles as well. A laser, powered by the fighter jet’s engines, could theoretically fire unlimited shots in an engagement. By comparison, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s GAU-12 25-millimeter gun holds only 200 rounds.
This is the ability to hang around over the battlefield. What that boils down to is a fighter jet that can fly longer and farther than current fighters, and would be useful not only over the Asia-Pacific, but also Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and Eastern Russia. Today’s stealth fighters must carry weapons and fuel internally, as wing-mounted missiles, bombs, and drop tanks increase the plane’s radar signature. The amount of fuel and weapons is limited by a plane’s internal volume.
The Air Force could increase persistence through a better, more fuel-efficient engine, though that’s covered by the NGAD’s sole unclassified capability: propulsion.
In the late 1980s, the Air Force’s “Have Slick” program envisioned stealthy weapons that attached to the underside of aircraft, allowing a stealth aircraft to carry weapons externally while remaining hidden from radar. Could the Air Force develop a similar system for carrying fuel? Could a fuel-carrying NGAD drone accompany a crewed fighter on combat missions?
The Air Force’s secret new fighter jet is just that: a total secret. As such, the new technology focus on “survivability, lethality, and persistence” could include all of these possibilities … or precisely none of them. We’ll just have to wait and see.
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