The U.S. Air Force Has Begun Prototyping Its F-35 Stealth Fighter Replacement

Kris Osborn

Key point: The weapons of the future are coming.

(Washington, D.C.) Drone fighter jets, hypersonic attack planes, artificial intelligence, lasers, electronic warfare and sensors woven into the fuselage of an aircraft - are all areas of current technological exploration for the Air Force as it begins early prototyping for a new, 6th-Generation fighter jet to emerge in the 2030s and 2040s.

While the initiative, called Next Generation Air Dominance(NGAD), has been largely conceptual for years, Air Force officials say current “prototyping” and “demonstrations” are informing which technologies the service will invest in for the future.

“We have completed an analysis of alternatives and our acquisition team is working on the requirements. We are pretty deep into experimenting with hardware and software technologies that will help us control and exploit air power into the future,” Gen. James Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Association of the Air Force Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

Part of the progress with the program, according to Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper, is due to new methods of digital engineering.

“I have spent six months with our industry leaders and NGAD team looking at examples of applied digital engineering. I’m impressed with what they have done,” Roper.

Digital engineering, as Roper explains it, brings what could be called a two-fold advantage. It enables weapons developers to assess technologies, material configurations and aircraft models without needing to build all of them -- all while paradoxically enabling builders to “bend metal” and start building prototypes earlier than would otherwise be possible.

“The reward is more than the risk,” Roper said, speaking of the need to “try something different” and pursue newer acquisition methods which at times results in prototyping earlier in the process than the traditional process typically involves.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working with the acquisition community on digital engineering techniques, often explored through modeling and simulation, for many years.

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