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Introduction to the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program

The following is the Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program: An Introduction.

From the report

On September 15, 2020, U.S. Air Force acquisition executive Dr. Will Roper announced that the Air Force had flown a full-scale flight demonstrator as part of the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
The announcement came as a surprise to many observers, both as the NGAD program was believed to be an early-phase technology development program unlikely to yield hardware in the near term, and because funding began two years ago, which is unusually fast to design and build a military aircraft. DOD had mentioned an interest in building a new “X-plane” prototype as far back as 2014, but it is not clear whether this led to the NGAD demonstrator.

What Is the NGAD Program?

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.

The one acknowledged NGAD-related technology is propulsion. Over the past few years, the Air Force has invested substantially in variable cycle engines. Other likely candidates include new forms of stealth; advanced weapons, including directed energy; and thermal management. The current engine on the F-35 and its variants expected to be on the B-21 produce a tremendous amount of electrical power that can enable new weapons. That could require advanced techniques to manage generated heat, so that it does not become part of the aircraft signatures and make the plane easier to detect.

Is the Goal of NGAD a New Fighter?

The technologies involved in NGAD are being developed to provide air dominance. Part of the program’s goal is to determine how to achieve that end, independent of traditional ideas. NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and/or a number of complementary systems—manned, unmanned, optionally manned, cyber, electronic—forms that would not resemble the traditional “fighter.”

For example, a larger aircraft the size of a B-21 may not maneuver like a fighter. But that large an aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon, with multiple engines making substantial electrical power for that weapon, could ensure that no enemy flies in a large amount of airspace. That is air dominance. There appears little reason to assume that NGAD is going to yield a plane the size that one person sits in, and that goes out and dogfights kinetically, trying to outturn another plane—or that sensors and weapons have to be on the same aircraft.

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