Amid signs of growing U.S. Air Force and Navy interest in a sixth-generation combat aircraft, Northrop Grumman is accelerating studies of key technologies for directed energy weapons and thermal management, which it says will be fundamental to future capability.
The company, whose last venture into the air dominance arena in the 1980s, the YF-23, lost out to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 in the advanced tactical fighter contest, has unveiled new images of a pair of optionally manned, tailless concepts aimed at replacing the Raptor and the Boeing F/A-18E/F. While acknowledging there are still more unknowns than knowns about future requirements for the next generation air dominance (NGAD) aircraft, Northrop says technology to cope with dramatic growth in heat loads will be a key enabler to whatever needs emerge.
The increase in heat loads is driven by the development of advanced weapons, particularly airborne lasers, as well as more powerful electronics, sensors and propulsion systems. The issue, which has already been a factor in early test and operations of the F-35, is expected to challenge all NGAD concepts. Under Northrop’s NGAD umbrella this includes the U.S. Air Force’s F-X requirements (now set to embrace an F-15C replacement in addition to the F-22), as well as the Navy’s F/A-XX mission.
Unlike any previous generation of air dominance aircraft at this embryonic stage, the configuration will be directly impacted by the integration challenges of directed energy weapons. “One of the unique things that happened (on NGAD) is the convergence of aircraft and weapons,” says Tom Vice, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems president. Despite the miniaturization of laser technology and the switch from bulky chemical-based systems to solid-state, electric lasers, Vice says thermal management is still key.
Range will be another important design driver, though perhaps not for the usual reason. “We anticipate limited basing in the future,” says Hernandez. “If range is important, then you’ll need to carry a lot of weapons. The other thing we know is that the adversaries have been increasing their defensive capabilities. So survivability is going to be really important. So this looks like a little baby B-2. That’s Northrop’s sweet spot,” he adds.