At the virtual 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said the NGAD program, which aims to deliver a new advanced fighter jet every five years, was advancing at a pace never before seen.
“NGAD right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world - exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results,” Roper said, according to Military.com. “NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world."
He later confirmed to Defense News: “We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”
Roper said the program had advanced so quickly as compared to previous programs because of a new digital engineering concept that had streamlined the process. However, he declined to expand on it, noting that “we don't want our adversaries to know what” those methods are.
In June, the Pentagon finalized plans for a “Digital Century Series” program that would introduce a new aircraft every five years, each of which would fit into a larger “family of systems.” The idea is derived from a slew of fighter jets adopted by the Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s beginning with the F-100 Super Sabre, that was called the “Century Series.” None was ever elevated to being the Air Force’s sole or primary interceptor or attack aircraft, but each worked with several other aircraft with varying roles in the same skies.
Each of the Century Series jets pioneered one or two new technologies, which is one reason they were developed so quickly. The F-100 Super Sabre, for example, was the Air Force’s first fighter capable of breaking the sound barrier in level flight and took just 2.5 years to develop. By comparison, the Lockheed Martin X-35 tester took seven years to proceed from idea to flying aircraft, including a slew of new and unproven technologies. It then took another five years to become the F-35A, then another 10 years before it actually entered US Air Force service in 2016.
On the other hand, each of the Century Series jets had its shortcomings, too. The F-100, for example, had a nasty problem of crashing just before landing because designers had not included any stabilizing “wing fences” on the aircraft.
“All the Century aircraft weren’t successful,” Roper told Breaking Defense in April 2019, “but enough were.”
The end result was that, by the late 1960s, the Air Force had solidified the technologies new to the 1950s and rapidly advanced them, making it possible to create powerful aircraft like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, which are still in use today.
It’s unclear if the demonstrator mentioned by Roper is just a concept aircraft or actually intended to be the first of the Digital Century Series jets, the Drive pointed out, noting a new US fighter prototype hasn’t debuted in 20 years, since the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 flew in 2000.