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The US Navy is reversing its fighter-jet design philosophy

A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft in the Pacific Ocean, May 31, 2014. (U.S. Navy photo by Chris Cavagnaro)

The U.S. Navy plans to design a new-generation fighter jet around different types of technology—as opposed to designing an aircraft and then trying to pack it with technology after the fact, a top admiral said.

Vice Adm. Dean Peters, the Naval Air Systems Command commander, described a shift in the design philosophy of high-performance fighter jets.

“The most important thing that’s going to happen with this with Next Generation [Air Dominance] is that we’re going to take all of those technologies that we’ve developed, those enabling technologies, and instead of picking a platform and then figuring out how to wedge those enabling technologies into it, or not be able to wedge those into it, we’re gonna start with the enabling technologies, and make that part of the criteria for what the aircraft looks like on the other end,” Peters said at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space convention in National Harbor, Maryland.

Called the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, the plane is to eventually replace the aircraft carrier-based F/A-18 Super Hornet. The Air Force also has a next-generation fighter jet project by the same name.

“I can tell you that although…the program is different than the Air Force, there is a very tight integration between the Air Force and the Navy, or what this platform is going to be,” Peters said.

A year ago, in August 2020, the Navy revealed it quietly stood up a program office for the new plane. About a month later, the Air Force said it had secretly built and flown a prototype of its NGAD aircraft.

Few details have since emerged. Over the years, companies have released concept images of new generation fighters with no vertical stabilizer, as a way to help make the planes less detectable to radar. The Air Force has been experimenting with technology to allow its future planes to be flown with or without pilots. It has also been developing “loyal wingmen,” pilotless drones that can fly alongside manned aircraft.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the only two American companies building manned fighter aircraft for the Navy and Air Force. Northrop Grumman is building a new generation stealth bomber for the Air Force.

The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all fly versions of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 Lightning II. Boeing builds Super Hornets for the Navy and F-15EX Eagles for the Air Force. Boeing is also building a new pilot training jet for the Air Force, the T-7 Red Hawk, which it’s also pitching to the Navy to replace the T-45 Goshawk. Italian defense firm Leonardo is pitching its M346 pilot trainer to replace the T-45.

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