The US Air Force has built and flown a mysterious full-scale prototype of its future fighter jet

| September 16, 2020 | 40 Comments

Concept art released by the the Air Force Research Lab in 2018 shows a potential next-generation fighter concept, or F-X. (Air Force Research Laboratory photo)

The Air Force’s top acquisition official told Defense News they’ve built and flown a full scale demonstrator for the next generation fighter.

The U.S. Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown at least one prototype of its enigmatic next-generation fighter jet, the service’s top acquisition official confirmed to Defense News on Sept. 14.

The development is certain to shock the defense community, which last saw the first flight of an experimental fighter during the battle for the Joint Strike Fighter contract 20 years ago. With the Air Force’s future fighter program still in its infancy, the rollout and successful first flight of a demonstrator was not expected for years.

“We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it,” Will Roper told Defense News in an exclusive interview ahead of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference. “We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

Almost every detail about the aircraft itself will remain a mystery due to the classification of the Next Generation Air Dominance program, the Air Force’s effort for fielding a family of connected air warfare systems that could include fighters, drones and other networked platforms in space or the cyber realm.

It seems as if the Air Force learned from the open, public, messy development of the F-35 and is going to play this one closer to the chest. They’ve also got the next generation bomber, the B-21 Raider, in development as well.

Category: Air Force, Big Pentagon, Blue Skies

Comments (40)

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  1. Slow Joe says:

    Well, it should be a drone flown by AI, but the jocks are not going to give up their pilot seat to any AI, no matter how the AI outperform them.

    I hope it is at least mission modifiable, where you can choose if a pilot or AI flights the mission.

    Eventually all combat vehicles are going to be AI controlled drones that follow the RoE to the letter, don’t make targeting mistakes, share experiences among each other, and don’t cost lives.

    • MI Ranger says:

      I would expect it to be a very stealthy jet with a lot of communications equipment to include optical communications. The manned “mother” will be in comms range of her drone swarms in order to update mission parameters. We won’t be able to rely on SATCOM in the next war, so we will need to put people with the plan close to the front but not in combat!
      That is just my take as Counter Drone SME!

  2. A Proud Infide®™️ says:

    My question is why the hell are we even admitting that it exists? Now the Russkies and the Chinese are going to go full throttle at spying on the project and stealing all the R&D they can!

    • 11B-Mailclerk says:

      Do you think that two world-class espionage agencies are unaware we are working on “next” ?

      We are always working on next.

      And one way to spin those opponents into an expensive tizzy is to tease next. Look at what happened to Russia trying to keep up with next. Heh.

      Russia spent billions of Rubles on the MiG-25, which had the sole practical purpose of killing the B-70 Valkyrie or any other Mach-3+ high-altitude bomber.


      • David says:

        No, they didn’t. The -25 used off-the-shelf electronics and engines, and was one of the cheapest supersonic fighters in modern history. Read the analysis from Belenko’s plane – basically they cobbled a bunch of off-the-shelf car parts together to make a dragster. (It happens, this year’s Pikes Peak climb’s first and second places went to guys who built their own cars… Porsche brought 12 cars and their highest finish was third.)

        • NHSparky says:

          MiG-25…proof that a brick will fly if you strap a big enough engine to it.

          And it’ll melt and run out of fuel before it’s even close to doing what it was designed to do.

        • 11B-Mailclerk says:

          The engines were single use at max output, requiring rebuild. At a sustainable use output, it was not terribly fast.

          It kinda sucked at “fighter” other than “straight line missile truck”.

          The rubles were squandered as if burned with the engines. Total waste. Their efforts to hype it also inspired us to build better, which didn’t exactly help them.


    • NHSparky says:

      Devil is in the details. No doubt they’ve known about Area 51, the Skunk Works, etc., way longer than we did.

      Getting to see what was going on there up close and personal? Whole nuther animal.

  3. FuzeVT says:

    A couple of thoughts:
    ► I think there will be a point that technology will advance far enough that it will be too expensive to mass produce. Take ship making for example. I have always thought that putting all our eggs in the carrier strike force basket was a risk as they can be nuked and you lose a great percentage of your combat power. I felt the Navy should invest in smaller, faster ships that would spread combat power over a greater distance. If there answer is, however, to design smaller super-high-tech ships, then they are missing the point. If it takes years to get one out of the dock (even in war) because of the technical complexity then that’s not the ship I envision. German special weapons projects come to mind. While they frittered away their money and resources on giant artillery, rockets and dozens of complex AFV designs, the Russians crushed them with regular arty, lots of T-34s and a bunch of dudes. An oversimplification, of course, but mass production has a quality all its own.

    ►I believe that whatever planes are developed, they should be purpose built. The jack of all trades concept like the JSF leads to master-of-none aircraft. The F-35 seems to have finally hit it’s stride, but it will never do CAS as well as the A-10, for example. It can load more than an AV8’s worth of ordnance, but you have to hang it on the exterior and you’ve lost your stealth. [Av8 carries 9,200lbs on external hard points. The F-35A carries 15,000 external (that’s good) but only 5,700 internal (not so good). The F-35B – the AV8 replacement – has max ordnance cap. of 15,000 total but not sure how that is broken out. The A-10 can hang 16,000 lbs!] Seems early tests suggest that much older and more maneuverable aircraft (thinking about you, F-16) can out dog fight the F-35 assuming it gets in that range. I don’t know, however, if that has been addressed, that being about 4-5 years ago.

    Please, no more one size fits all aircraft, folks! Thus ends my humble opinion.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      Spot on FuzeVT. I kinda have to agree wid you. And maybe, just maybe, despite the two largest spy organizations in the world trying to steal everything they can, we may be able to deploy this one before they do. Wonder if Senator DiFi has a new driver yet?

      The way Slow Joe is talking, seems like he is ready to form Skynet Inc. When the machines rise up are the Bank’s ATMs gonna lead the charge?

    • 11B-Mailclerk says:

      It is kinda weird how the F-15 “not one pound for air to ground” became the very competent F-15E Strike Eagle, a workhorse attack/strike fighter. The F-16, another pure fighter, is now a wonderful Wild Weasel killer of ADA.

      But nothing warms the heart like a flock of A-10s on call, unless we are building a 2020s ground-attack dedicated killer.

      Straight wing can be stealthy. Look up the DeHaviland Mosquito.

      • Green Thumb says:

        The A-10 is a mean aircraft.

      • Ex-PH2 says:

        And here, I was just about to ask why NOT more A-10S??

        • FuzeVT says:

          You would think they could still be useful on the battlefield with all those spiffy stealth a/c flying cover. The AF, however, is adamant about nixing that air frame. I guess I understand – to a degree. They are told by congress critters they need to buy more and more fancy 5G airplanes (not that they don’t love them anyway) so the budget is crushed. They have to cut funding somewhere and no one likes those gross CAS planes anyway (Yuck!!) That’s for Marines and Army rotary wing a/c to do!

          • MI Ranger says:

            I thought they were told to update the entire fleet of A-10s (new engines, new avionics, adjust the wings…)! It was also tagged so they could not move the money (i.e. Space Force funds)!

    • ChipNASA says:

      OK, is it wrong that I outright laughed at “Russians crushed them with regular arty, lots of T-34s and *a bunch of dudes*”..??”

    • Slow Joe says:


      Mass production is also a technology that can be expanded. Modern 3D printing is making mass production possible in a variety of fields, but I agree it remains uncertain how much it will affect the production of high tech military equipment.

      During WW2 factories were converted to make military equipment. I am sure we can do the same now if the need arises.

      • FuzeVT says:

        You aren’t wrong. Production IS yet another technology that gets more advanced. Building an F-35 with manufacturing methods from the 80s obviously wouldn’t work. But just like the technology of the end product getting more expensive with increased complexity, so does the manufacturing technology. So we are back to the issue of the cost, in time and treasure, of the thing and if it is too expensive for peace and too time consuming for full scale war. The Luger my grandfather brought back from WWII is a great piece of gear and the German engineering is incredible. It was also expensive, time consuming to produce and prone to jamming in dirty conditions. The P-38 was an improvement in those areas. Maybe it didn’t shoot as straight, but lots of an 80% solution beats fewer 95% solutions (like my comment about Russians above).

        As for expanded production in emergencies, yes, that can be done. The problem as I see it (so I may be wrong) would be that if the things that needed to be produced were highly technologically advanced, it would be difficult to ramp up production quickly. The F-35 is made just down the road from me in the old Consolidated plant in Fort Worth (since they are done making B-24s). How quickly do you think they could start making them elsewhere if that took a dirty bomb, mid-building. Jeeps could be made almost anywhere that made cars. I think tanks were made at car plants, as well. I wouldn’t think you could just get Detroit to start cranking out M1A2s very quickly.

    • The Other Whitey says:

      Another caveat is that kraut wunderwaffen (not unlike the F-35) rarely lived up to their hype. US, British, and (usually) Russian stuff generally promised less, but actually delivered.

  4. Sapper3307 says:

    Does anybody think China has the blueprints already?

  5. David says:

    Gotta agree with Fuze… relying on a few gee-whiz weapons is a poor strategy, especially when it hits the fan. The enemy has one system to outwit, while you are faced with a horde of tanks, AKs, etc. by Arthur C. Clarke is one of the best of all time on the subject.

  6. Sparks says:

    Wait a minute. I thought the new wizbang F-35 was supposed to be the end-all-be-all for decades?

  7. It’s plane to see that We have the technology to build these planes.

  8. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    Don’t know if the concept art follows closely the prototypes and production, but…..where’s the rudder tail?

  9. Hondo says:

    Well, it looks like the Air Force learned one thing from the F-35.

    If you don’t tell anyone you’re developing an aircraft, no one can see how you’re screwing it up by the numbers – and hold you accountable.

  10. OmegaPaladin says:

    To be frank, we need really high end platforms as well as bulk-scale platforms. One of these high-end fighters could probably act as a command center for a flock of drones acting as missile trucks.

    Having some lower tech forces allows you to spread out wider and handle missions with lower threat. They are also better options for foreign sale. Going with all low tech forces risks the enemy getting ahead.

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