- The Air Force recently announced it secretly designed, built, and flew a new fighter jet in a mere year.
- The plane is shrouded in mystery, with only its existence confirmed to the general public.
- Three big questions: What is the plane’s mission? Who built it? And when do we get to see it?
The U.S. Air Force surprised the world earlier this month when it announced it had designed, built, and flown a secret new fighter jet in a fraction of the time it usually takes: just one year.
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The Air Force has been incredibly tight-lipped about the new fighter, only confirming that it exists, and that it’s flying ... somewhere. A little bit of fun speculation could prove to be right, or it could prove to be very wrong. Let's use what we know to try to figure out what we don't.
What Kind of Fighter Is the Secret New Fighter Jet?
There are basically two types of fighter jets: air superiority fighters and multi-role fighters. Air superiority fighters are “pure” fighters, meant only to fight other planes. One shining example is the original F-15A Eagle, whose designers were so opposed to a ground-attack role for the plane that their motto was, “Not a pound for air-to-ground.”
The other, recently more popular type of fighter is the multi-role fighter, like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or the F-15EX Advanced Eagle, which are capable of performing both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, often in the same sortie.
Multi-role fighter jets grew more popular than air superiority fighters after the end of the Cold War, when declining defense budgets worldwide meant it made more sense to buy a single plane capable of performing multiple roles than a fighter that could only do one thing well.
The Air Force already has two multi-role fighters: the F-35A and F-15EX. The introduction of China’s Chengdu J-20 and Russia's Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon” fifth-generation fighters is a strong argument in favor of a new air superiority fighter.
The Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, under which it designed the new fighter jet, is meant to ensure the service's “air dominance” in future conflicts versus the fighters of potential adversaries, like China and Russia. The new fighter, then, is likely an air-to-air fighter, which means it uses off-the-shelf avionics, engines, and weapons borrowed from other aircraft, such as the F-35 and F/A-18E/F.
Who Built the Air Force's Secret New Fighter Jet?
The general consensus is one of the big three aerospace companies—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman—built the new fighter jet. The plane is almost certainly a stealthy design, and there’s only one company right now actually building stealth fighters: Lockheed Martin, which fashioned the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Then again, Boeing is no slouch with stealth either, as its recently unveiled Loyal Wingman drone displays stealthy qualities. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, has decades of experience with radar-evasion technology. Northrop produced the B-2A Spirit bomber in 1988 and is currently working on the B-21 Raider stealth bomber—the coolest plane we've never seen.
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When Will We See the Secret New Fighter Jet?
We can't emphasize this enough: Designing, building, and flying a fighter jet in secret is virtually unprecedented. Fighter jets are typically lobbied for and built in broad daylight, in order to drum up support with both the general public and Congress, and whet the appetite of potential foreign customers.
The closest known example is the F-117A Nighthawk stealth “fighter,” which is technically a light bomber. The F-117A first flew in 1981, but its existence was only confirmed in 1988—after dozens of the planes were fully operational and ready for combat.
A public unveiling of the secret fighter will likely depend on whether the Air Force wants to buy it or not. If the Air Force decides to build the plane it will, like all fighters, need the support of Congress. While the Air Force could build the plane in secret, it’s also touting how the plane was built, using new digital design technologies that greatly sped up its development.
The Air Force will probably need to show the plane off to make a case for not only the jet, but this new way of doing things, too. Even if the service wants to keep it under wraps, several factors—a potential new president, a new Congress, and changing defense budget priorities—could force the Air Force to unveil the new plane shortly after the 2020 election.
It's hard to come by concrete details about the Air Force's secret new fighter jet, and even harder to make informed guesses when we don’t even know if the plane has a pilot or not. Are we on the right track, or are we wildly off? Only the Air Force knows for sure.
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