The world’s largest defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin has released a new concept art for a sixth generation fighter currently under development to equip the U.S. Air Force under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which is expected to produce an aircraft for active service by 2030. Among the anticipated features which were seen on the design were a diamond-shaped wing with straight leading and trailing edges, a tailless body, and wings closely blended with the fuselage. These are all expected to contribute to increasing stealth capabilities far beyond what has been achieved on currently operational stealth fighters. A technology demonstrator for the aircraft was confirmed to have flown in 2020, with the program then erroneously reported by the U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to have entered the Engineering Manufacturing and Development phase in June.
The twin engine aircraft appears to be a heavyweight designed with a high endurance, fitting in with the primary mission the aircraft was designed for which is war over the vast distances of the Western Pacific. A notable and unexpected feature is its very low profile cockpit, which could seriously limit pilot visibility, although this may well become less of an impediment as pilots come to rely more on distributed aperture systems allowing them to see through their aircraft using their helmets. Such systems have been installed on the F-35 fifth generation fighter and its Chinese rival the J-20, and provide important advantages over older aircraft particularly within visual ranges.
It has long been speculated that Lockheed Martin would play the leading role in the NGAD program, despite this having yet to be publicly confirmed, as it remains the only firm in the Western world to have developed post-fourth generation fighters – namely the fifth generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II which serve in the U.S. Air Force today. The NGAD fighter is expected to replace the F-22 in frontline service, with the troubled Raptor set to begin retirement in 2023 despite airframes having flow for just a fraction of their service lives, after production was cut by 75 percent and orders for final termination of product were given in 2009 less than four years after the class entered service. Widespread issues with the F-22 have meant that the F-35 and the Chinese J-20, a heavyweight fighter analogous to the Raptor, are the world’s only post fourth generation fighters in production and fielded at squadron level strength today.
The NGAD fighter and its unnamed Chinese rival are expected to enter service almost simultaneously, with the United States and China competing effectively in a league of their own in a neck to neck race while other countries are expected to continue to struggle to move past the fourth generation. The NGAD is expected to be produced in much smaller numbers than even the F-22, with potentially under 100 being built, due to its extreme cost estimated at several hundred million dollars per airframe. The aircraft will neverthless be able to form large squadrons as each will be integrated alongside several unmanned ‘wingman’ aircraft.