Appropriately for a time when “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is grabbing headlines across the globe, a futuristic fighter jet that looks a small starship was revealed this week.
The sixth-generation fighter jet concept is called NG Air Dominance and is the brainchild of Northrop Grumman. The project is taking aircraft designs from science fiction and making them science reality.
Both the U.S. Air Force and Navy have started to seek what folks in the defense business are calling “next-generation air dominance” or "sixth-generation" fighters.
The Air Force calls its dream sixth-gen fighter the F-X. The Navy calls its pursuit of these advanced aircraft the F/A-XX. Both services are looking for a fighter that can dominate and take on multiple roles.
The current goal is for sixth-gen aircraft to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft. The Air Force and Navy next-gen aircraft would be ready to deploy in the 2030s.
Northrop Grumman and other companies like Boeing are developing concepts to meet this requirement.
When Northrop Grumman unveiled the image of what its vision for the NG Air Dominance, some experts described it as similar to the B-2 bomber and others, to the X-47B drone.
What can it do?
The project is shrouded in mystery and the specifications are secret, but supersonic speed, stealth and sophisticated weaponry are expected to feature in the aircraft’s design. Given that NG Air Dominance is a fighter for the future, we could expect it to leverage advanced materials, ultra-high-speed processing and mega-advanced computing.
NG Air Dominance is expected to reach supersonic speeds. An aircraft at this speed would be faster than the speed of sound, that’s about 768 mph.
Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has a top speed of about 1,190 mph while the EA-18G Growler has a maximum speed of approximately 1,180 mph. Northrop’s goal is for the NG Air Dominance to replace these aircraft so it could be expected to fly faster.
One ultra-speedy aircraft right now is Lockheed Martin’s state-of-the art SR- 71 Blackbird with a maximum speed of about 2,200 mph.
Laser weapons and more
NG Air Dominance is expected to carry a number of state-of-the art weapons, including laser weapons to track and destroy multiple targets.
Power, thrust and lasers all generate heat so that’s one big challenge the designers will need to overcome. Managing heat is important for a number of reasons such as not compromising the stealth of the aircraft. Heat is something that could be detected by hostile forces.
Some reports claim that both the U.S. Navy and Air Force are looking to build next-gen fighters that don’t need a human in the cockpit to fly it – these fighters would be flown by artificial intelligence.
Other reports suggest that AI will serve as a co-pilot to the human pilot – kind of like how R2D2 flies as co-pilot to Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” movies.
In a briefing at the U.S. Naval Academy in May, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated that replacements for the Super Hornet should have unmanned ability, not just for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and refueling, but also for strike capabilities.
Mabus added “whatever F/A-XX looks like it should be unmanned.”
The next long-range strike bomber B-3
In October, the Air Force announced that it chose Northrop Grumman to build the next generation long-range strike bomber. The Air Force has not yet chosen a name for the aircraft, which folks are referring to as “B-3”.
The new strike bomber will start deploying in about a decade. The aircraft is expected to replace the nearly four-decades old B-1, as well as the legendary B-52 Stratofortress that has served the country for about six decades.