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Hashing Out the Details: US Air Force Wants New Jet Sooner Rather Than Later

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After a year of researching new technologies and tactics for the next phase in air warfare, the US Air Force is getting closer to bringing its plans to acquire a new fighter jet to fruition. The follow-up to the beleaguered F-35 program is being called the Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) or Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD).

Alexus Grynkewich, a Brigadier General who led an Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team (ECCT), highlighted two differences between the US Air Force acquisition efforts of past legacy jets and that of NGAD, one being that the NGAD would take less time to be actively deployed. 

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In an interview with Defense News, Grynkewich said, "We need to have something by the late 2020s, I think a realistic timeline is somewhere around 2028. With key investments in some key technology areas, you’d be able to have some initial operational capability of a penetrating counter air capability."

Grynkewich explained that the other difference centers around the Air Superiority 2030 study, which concluded that the service would need to rely on an integrated network of cyber, electronic and space resources to assure its dominance in the future. This would be very different than the usual tactic of relying on a single platform, like a sixth-generation fighter jet.

This could indicate that future fighter jets will look less like the dogfighters of years past and more like a weaponized sensor node, according to Grynkewich. Preliminary exercises are currently being conducted at Ohio’s Wright Patterson Air Force Base to ensure NGAD compliance and explore new technologies. 

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The military spokesman stated that "They’re looking at all of the tradespace of the various attributes," including survivability, payload, range and lethality. The ECCT is also exploring how the Air Force can meet its requirements much more quickly. The team found that 2040 would be the soonest a new sixth-generation fighter could be field tested using the normal procurement process. Grynkewich suggests an expedited procurement program could speed up the process by at least a decade.

Key to that effort will be parallel development, where features like sensors, weapons and an advanced engine are separately developed and then integrated into the aircraft. Once those technologies have progressed into their beginning phase, the Air Force could test their effectiveness using modeling and simulation. 

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Grynkewich acknowledges that integration will be the project’s most difficult aspect, but believes prototyping can help minimize the risk. 

The general said, "I would make them operationally realistic, relevant prototypes. 'Fieldable' prototypes is the term I would like to use. Whether we go there or not will be another tradespace discussion…You get it as mature as you can. You get these prototypes, you fly them around for a while. You do some testing on them."

He added, "If you do something like that, if you don't change your requirements, if you don't set your sights on technologies that you know aren't going to mature on the timeline required, then you'll be in decent shape."

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