PALMDALE, CALIF: Northrop Grumman unveiled its vision of the so-called sixth-generation fighter, showing reporters a laser-firing aircraft that looks like a cross between the B-2 bomber and the X-47B drone.
Chris Hernandez, Northrop’s vice president for research, technology and advanced design, laid out the basic parameters for the sixth-gen fighter (Northrop refers to it as NG Air Dominance): it must boast long range because it’s unlikely to have many bases to operate from overseas; it must “carry a lot of weapons;” survivability will be key.
What do those requirements and physics lead you to? “This looks a lot like a baby B-2 and this is really getting into our sweet spot,” Hernandez told us. Northrop Grumman has two design teams working on the new aircraft. Northrop’s top aerospace systems executives, who offered reporters a rare glimpse at the company’s inner workings here, would not discuss the plane’s speed, saying that would have to wait for clearer direction from the Pentagon in the future.
One of the keys to this new weapon, which is in the earliest stages of head-scratching and planning, will be heat management. As Northrop president for aerospace Tom Vice noted, lasers operate at 33 percent efficiency when all goes well. That means there’s enormous heat to dissipate and that will be just from the lasers.
Add in all the aircraft’s power and thrust systems, and you have an enormous heat challenge. It needs to be managed on a system level because of the aircraft’s assumed low observable requirements, Hernandez told me. The level of complexity will make this aircraft something like an advanced satellite, where electromagnetic interference, heat offload and power requirements pose compelling and existential challenges to the system.
If you look at Boeing’s sixth generation concept you can see how much physics and low observability (stealth) are driving the form of these aircraft. However, the Northrop aircraft appears to build in more of the all-aspect stealth lessons of the B-2. If range and payload are key parameters for these stealthy aircraft, they’re likely to be damn big for fighters and to incorporate many of the lessons learned from the B-2 — and, we assume, from the B-3 (LRSB). I asked Hernandez if the sixth generation fighter would end up as the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study posits — really big aircraft with very long range — and he went straight on with his presentation.
Northrop Grumman paid for my hotel and flew reporters to and from California on a corporate jet.