The turbopropjet-powered General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is a most effective unoccupied aerial vehicle (UAV) that continues to seek and destroy enemy targets. Formerly known as Predator B, the Reaper can carry up to 3,800 pounds of ordnance—800 pounds internal, 3,000 pounds external. It was developed from the MQ-1B Predator B and developed into the Predator C Avenger.
Boeing unveiled its Phantom Ray on May 10, 2010, and it made its first flight on April 27, 2011 at Edwards AFB. It was a development of the DARPA/USAF/USN X-45C J-UCAS, which was cancelled on March 2, 2006. The Phantom Ray—designed and built by the Boeing Phantom Works—is a flying-wing with a span of fifty feet and a length of thirty-six feet. Powered by a single non-afterburning, General Electric F404-GE-102D turbofanjet engine, the Phantom Ray’s top speed was 614 miles per hour (Mach 0.8).
The General Atomics Predator C Avenger is an ongoing, unsolicited, company-funded program for which GA-ASI hopes to gain production orders. It has six external hard points for a wide variety of ordnance, and its internal weapons bay can house up to 3,500 pounds of ordnance. The Avenger has an eighteen-hour endurance.
Boeing Phantom Works FX conceptual drawing.
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works next-generation air dominance (NGAD) concept.
In March 2014, the USAF requested $15.72 million in its budget proposal for FY2015. This money was to be allocated for a new next-generation, air dominance research and development project that would lay the foundation for an acquisition program in FY2018.
The 2030-and-beyond air dominance concept development consists of operational analyses, threat studies, and technology candidate assessments to identify operational concepts and technologies that improve persistence, survivability, lethality, connectivity, interoperability, and affordability in the decades to come. This effort will provide for prime contractor support manpower that will allow for conducting analyses, identifying technology candidates, and completing concept studies.
The fleet of USAF fifth-generation F-22 Raptors has been operational for some ten years as of this writing, and, according to Lockheed Martin, the USAF fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II won’t begin to become operational (that is, capable of meeting its IOC) until the first operational squadron is equipped with between twelve and twenty-four aircraft. This will not happen until August 2016 (objective) and December 2016 (threshold).
Nevertheless, the USAF has initiated its search for an F-X aircraft, a “next-generation air dominance” type, to replace the F-22 after 2030. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have already shown conceptual designs of their respective F-X ideas. Nevertheless, these early concepts will change many times over before an airframe contractor is selected to produce the next-generation air dominance fighter that is capable of truly becoming operational.
Occupied vs. Unoccupied Bombers and Fighters
Fighter aircraft have been occupied since before World War I and their respective successes are well known. The possibility of fielding unmanned fighters in the near future grows stronger with each day.
As of 2015, there are several unoccupied combat-type air vehicles undergoing flight and weapon test activities. It is a matter of time before one or more of these will be adapted to aerial combat.
One of these unoccupied combat-type air vehicles is the privately funded Boeing Phantom Ray. On April 27, 2011, the fighter-sized Phantom Ray unmanned airborne system (UAS) made its first flight at Edwards AFB. It flew for a second time just eight days later, on May 8. Boeing unveiled the Phantom Ray at its St. Louis, Missouri, facility on May 10, 2010, after only two years of development. It is thirty-six feet long with a fifty-foot wingspan. Its propulsion comes from a single non-afterburning, axial-flow, 7,000-lbf General Electric F404-GE-102D turbofanjet engine.
This engine was earlier selected for use by the Boeing X-45C Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS), which were discontinued as they evolved into the Phantom Ray.
Whether the next-generation bomber or fighter will be occupied or unoccupied (or both) remains unclear at this time. Almost certainly, though, fleets of unoccupied combat aircraft will someday take to the air, whether they are attack, bomber, or fighter aircraft—or a combination of all three.
A future air dominance fighter in the 2030-and-beyond period may include laser-beam control systems for operations in the flight regime, for altitudes ranging from sea level to more than sixty-five-thousand feet and speeds from Mach 0.6 to 2.5. Pilots of such aircraft may be ground-based. A fighter of this design is far in the future, but the fire has been lit, and its eventual creation has begun to give off a little heat. When and if these plans unleash a raging inferno remains to be seen.
Air Force general worried US won’t field sixth-gen fighter in time to beat China
Since September, when the U.S. Air Force disclosed that it had flown a full-scale demonstrator of its future fighter, the defense community has been hungry for more details about the Next Generation Air Dominance program. And Air Force leaders have been loathe to provide them.
That’s what made unprompted comments by Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark Kelly during a Feb. 26 roundtable with reporters so surprising.
During the event, none of the 20-something journalists gathered ventured to ask Kelly about the NGAD program. But as the session drew to a close, Kelly decided to share his thoughts anyway.
“I for one am confident that the technology and the test points have developed to where NGAD technology will get fielded,” he said.
“And I’m confident that the adversaries on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day, and tough week and tough war. What I don’t know — and we’re working with our great partners — is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us.”
Kelly declined to comment on how close the U.S. Air Force is to being able to field NGAD — typical of the mystery surrounding the program.
Much is still unknown about NGAD. Air Force leaders have been clear that it’s a “family of systems” that could include manned aircraft, drones or other advanced capabilities, not a traditional fighter in the mode of the F-16 or even the F-35.
But it’s unclear how many NGAD demonstrators have been created and which companies have manufactured them. Practically every detail about its performance is also classified.
“It’s a keen focus, a keen capability,” Kelly said of NGAD. “We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the biggest benefit we’ve had as a nation — to have leading edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”
Kelly’s comments may portend that the program is at a turning point where more funding is needed to accelerate its development and fielding timeline.
Lawmakers have been somewhat tepid to the program thus far, funding only $904 million of the Air Force’s $1.044 billion request in fiscal year 2021. It previously received $905 million for the program in FY20.
In the FY21 defense policy bill, Congress also mandated that the Pentagon’s independent Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office conduct a study on Air Force and Navy future fighter programs, including on NGAD’s technological, cost, and business case.