NEXT GENERATION AIR DOMINANCE (NGAD)
A bit of a bombshell was dropped a few weeks ago when the USAF admitted to flying a new prototype of its "Next Generation Air Dominance" fighter. Not many details were revealed besides that.
This, of course, has led to rampant speculation as to what this new fighter could be. What does it look like? What capabilities does it have? Who makes it? How soon will it be before it sees service?
The timing is certainly odd. Only a few weeks prior, the USAF announced it would be launching a new "eSeries" designation of aircraft. These new aircraft, of which the T-7 Red Hawk (now eT-7) would be the first, utilize "digital engineering" to speed up the development... Which makes you wonder what the hell they used to develop aircraft like the F-22 and F-35. Draft paper and slide rules?
The F-35 has yet to reach adolescence so it is curious as to why the Pentagon would be willing to devote resources to "the next big thing". The answer to this, of course, is the F-22.
The F-22 is still the most dominant fighter in the world, but it might not stay that way for long. Potential adversaries like the Su-57 and J-20 are well on their way. While these fighters may not offer everything the Raptor does, they offer enough to give pause. This is especially true when considering the considering the age and number of F-22s available. With less than 200 airframes, many reaching the middle of their expected service life, their value in a large-scale conflict is quickly diminishing.
One can argue about the capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II... But the mere existence of the F-15EX argues that even the USAF does not have the utmost confidence in JSF as an air superiority fighter. It needs something bigger, faster, and better armed.
So what can we expect from this "NGAD"?
It is hard to say at this point. Do not expect any massively groundbreaking designs just yet. Aviation buffs may be looking forward to the upcoming "6th Generation " of fighters, but how would we even define those aircraft?
The idea of fighter "generations" is rather ambiguous in the first place. Sure, we can point at an F-4 Phantom II and call and call it "3rd gen", but that definition only becomes clear in retrospect. The F-4 ended up defining the generation because it was so successful... But what if it was not?
Things get even hazier with newer fighters like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, and Gripen. While clearly a step up from "4th gen" fighters like the legacy Hornet and F-16, they are not quite up to "5th gen" criteria set by the F-22 Raptor. This earns the Super Hornet a "4+" or "4.5th gen" description... But what about the further enhanced capabilities of the the Super Hornet Block III or Gripen E? Now we are getting into the "4++ gen" territory.
What truly defines a fighter generation is that it is built on the lessons learned from the fighters that came before it. First generation fighter pilots asked for more speed and power, so second generation fighters like the F-104 offered it in spades. Second generation fighter pilots discovered that guns were impractical at those speeds, so third gen fighters like the F-4 started incorporating powerful radars and long range missiles. Third gen pilots complained about the lack of maneuverability, so fourth gen fighters manage to balance speed, maneuverability, and firepower. The proliferation of more advanced surface-to-air missiles, combined with the "shock and awe" tactics adopted during the Gulf War demanded a sneakier approach. This led to the stealthy designs of today.
If the "6th Generation" of fighter jets is to build on the lesson of the 5th Generation, what can we expect to see?