Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown told reporters during an April 12 roundtable that the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation fighter jet will feature a brand-new capability no existing fighter has: the ability to quickly change the onboard software that drives the plane’s hardware.
That means Next-Generation Air Dominance’s (NGAD) computer system will allow the aircraft to update the software that controls the hardware, allowing the plane to quickly squash software bugs or unlock new capabilities while in the air.
Brown told reporters that the service’s NGAD fighter separates its flight-control software from the rest of the aircraft computer system—including software that controls communications and networking, radar, electronic warfare, the control of new weapons, and so on.
“If you’re able to take the flight control software and separate it from the mission system software… [and] I plug in an extra black box with whatever computing power, it doesn’t interfere with the flight controls,” Brown said. “[In] the F-16 I flew, the mission software and the flight control software were all intertwined. So anytime you did a mission upgrade, you had to go back and make sure the aircraft is safe to fly.”
The NGAD fighter is a new fighter concept set to replace the F-22 Raptor and other Air Force fighters. A tech demonstrator has already flown, though the aircraft itself won’t enter service in significant numbers until the early 2030s. The NGAD program will consist of both crewed and uncrewed aircraft teamed together to allow the Air Force to attain air dominance in any future theater of war.
Current fighters, Brown explained, run all of the software on one main computer system. Any time a significant software upgrade is performed, the Air Force and its defense contractors must run flight tests to ensure that the upgrade does not accidentally impede the aircraft’s flight controls, perhaps introducing an unwitting pilot to a nasty surprise.
Separating flight control software from the rest of the aircraft’s software package ensures that, as long as the code meets certain parameters, the software can be installed without performing extra flight testing. The result is that NGAD, and likely all future Air Force aircraft, will be able to receive new software updates sooner.
While the NGAD program remains highly secretive, spending on the effort has been gradually growing over the past several years — a sign of continued progress. The Air Force wants $1.65 billion for the Next Generation Air Dominance program in fiscal 2023, a boost of about $133 million over its FY22 request.