The NGAD towards the collaborative combat phase
The NGAD towards the collaborative combat phase

| Gaétan Powis | Source : Air&Cosmos 735 mots

The NGAD towards the collaborative combat phase

Since 2019, the 6th generation fighter demonstrator developed under the "Next Generation Air Dominance" program has been conducting ground and flight tests. But the future American fighter aircraft is part of a family of systems and will therefore be accompanied by various models of drones.

A system of systems

Destined to support and even replace the US Air Force's F-22 Raptor as well as the US Navy's F-18 from 2030 onwards, the future 6th generation fighter aircraft on which the trio of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing is working will be integrated into a family of systems. The piloted aircraft will be accompanied by various models of drones in a "Combat Collaborative Aircraft" employment concept. This should provide an opportunity for a new tender on these drones, Frank Kendall, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, recently said.

Lockheed Martin, and in particular its advanced research department "Skunk Works," recently released a video illustrating this collaborative combat concept using the F-35A as the manned module. In order to penetrate a heavily protected area, the F-35A is accompanied by drones, each with a specific role: target drones used as bait for enemy anti-aircraft batteries or fighter planes, electronic warfare drones to jam enemy radars, not to mention detection and/or communication drones and combat drones enabling the F-35A to destroy any threat while maintaining its stand-off capabilities. A true air group animated and managed by artificial intelligence.

The Ghost Bat next to the NGAD?

Boeing Australia has been developing, for many years, a drone to support the F/A-18F, F-35A or even E-7A of the Royal Australian Air Force. The concept behind this development strongly resembles the "Combat Collaborative Aircraft" (CCA) : several drones would accompany a fighter aircraft and, thanks to artificial intelligence, could autonomously carry out orders given by the aircraft's pilot in order to support it in its mission.

The drone in question, named MQ-28 Ghost Bat, is currently in the test phase and has been flying since February 27, 2021. It should be noted that in order to accompany the F-35A during its missions, it is, from the beginning, designed as a stealth drone. Moreover, the Pentagon does not hide the fact that it is conducting discussions with Boeing Australia on the future modalities of employment with a view to the CCA: 

"I talk to my Australian counterparts in general about the NGAD family of systems and how they could participate. [...]The MQ-28 could serve as a 'risk reduction' mechanism for the NGAD drone capability. I think there's a lot of mutual interest in working together. And we're going to work out the details over the next few weeks." said the US Air Force Secretary.

Industry 4.0 Fully Associated

To develop the CCA concept, the Pentagon is mobilizing "industry 4.0" tools that make it possible to predict, anticipate various malfunctions; aging but also behavior in operations of the various components of a combat aircraft. Industry 4.0 also provides more information on the health of aerostructures after they have been hit. In fact, it was one of the keys to the decision on the contract to re-engine the B-52H strategic bombers.

The various bidders had to propose a functional engine with all its parts modeled in 3D. Rolls-Royce, the winner of the competition with its F130 engine, had in fact not limited itself to the engine but to an entire B-52 wing. This growing role of the 4.0 has another application on another strategic bomber program, namely the B-21, which will replace the B-2 (more info in the attached press review). Even as the first B-21 has yet to leave the factory, the US Air Force has announced that the fuel systems on the first six examples have all been tested and computer validated (more info in this article).

The US Navy is also working

The US Navy is also developing its future sixth-generation fighter. It has thus launched the F/A-XX program, the naval version of the NGAD. This future manned aircraft will also have to be able to interact with a whole range of drones. They also have another point in common  no official image is yet available on the aircraft and the various accompanying drones.

One image had however made the rounds of the networks about a year ago  the US Navy had made an explanatory diagram of the program by displaying a futuristic fighter plane with duck plans and the name F/A-XX. However, it would be a copy of the image of the " TF-70 Shukusei ", a completely fictitious aircraft since it is only visible within the video game " Ace Combat ".


The Navy's F/A-XX concept but using the image of a video game aircraft.

Le concept de F/A-XX de la Navy mais utilisant l'image d'un avion de jeu vidéo.
Le concept de F/A-XX de la Navy mais utilisant l'image d'un avion de jeu vidéo. © US Navy
Le concept de F/A-XX de la Navy mais utilisant l'image d'un avion de jeu vidéo.

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