The United States Air Force intends to learn from past difficulties experienced during the F-35 program as they forge ahead with the development of their next-generation (sixth-gen) fighter aircraft.
The F-35, the most expensive military weapons system in history, has been plagued by multiple issues since its inception. Critics have pointed to cost overruns, production delays, software glitches, and more that have tainted the reputation of the cutting-edge stealth fighter.
At a recent defense seminar, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. stated, “Our approach to developing our sixth-gen fighter seeks to prevent repeating the challenges we faced during the F-35 program.”
The Air Force’s sixth-generation fighter, currently known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, reportedly completed a successful test flight of a full-scale demonstrator in 2020, indicating significant progress.
Part of the approach to avoid previous issues involves incremental software development and testing to identify potential problems earlier in the process. The Air Force also plans to follow a more open-system architecture, which could allow for easier upgrades and integration with a wider array of weapons and systems. This methodology contrasts with the more rigid design of the F-35.
The NGAD program is also expected to benefit from digital engineering, a design methodology that was less mature during the F-35’s development. Using digital twins (virtual replicas of physical devices), the Air Force can simulate a full range of scenarios before any physical aircraft is built, potentially saving time, money, and resources.
“We want to take our experiences with the F-35 and ensure that we’re smarter about how we test, develop, and field our next-generation fighter,” said General Brown. “The goal is to provide our pilots with the most advanced and capable aircraft without compromising cost-effectiveness and efficiency.”
The Air Force did not give a specific timeline for the deployment of the NGAD. Still, the lessons learned from the F-35 will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the development and implementation of the sixth-generation fighter.
The promise of a more capable, efficient, and cost-effective fighter comes at a critical time when potential adversaries ramp up their advanced aircraft programs. As the Air Force navigates these challenges, all eyes will be on the development of the NGAD.