Late last week, Lockheed Martin released a new rendering of its LMXT next-generation strategic tanker that includes a depiction of what could be America’s newest stealth fighter which is currently being developed within the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program (NGAD).
It’s impossible to say whether the tailless, crewed fighter depicted in the new render is meant to represent the real fighter being developed within the NGAD program, but the jet does bear a number of design elements that we’ve come to expect from the Air Force’s forthcoming air superiority fighter.
What does this new Lockheed Martin render show?
This new promotional image is meant to depict Lockheed Martin’s LMXT aerial refueling tanker, which is, in itself, a modified iteration of the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport, or MRTT. This tanker program intends to offer an affordable interim platform for the Air Force to purchase once production ends on the KC-46A Pegasus, but before production of an as-yet-undefined tanker of the future.
But while the Airbus-based tanker has previously been depicted refueling Lockheed Martin F-35s and F-22s, the latest renders show a sleek new fighter that fits the general description of what many have come to expect the Air Force’s NGAD fighter to look like.
The images show a twin-engine fighter with no tail section and a delta-wing design. As we’ve discussed a number of times in the past, these are all elements we’ve come to expect out of the NGAD fighter based on a number of official renders, Air Force documents, and statements from defense officials. Of course, it’s important to note that, to date, exactly what the NGAD fighter will really look like remains a mystery to the general public.
What can we glean about the NGAD fighter from these images?
While there’s no way to be certain that these images really do depict America’s next air superiority fighter, the aircraft depicted is close enough to other NGAD renders to raise a few eyebrows. Chief among the similarities is the lack of a defined tail section, which we’ve postulated before could suggest these new fighters could be the first of their kind to not only prevent detection against high-frequency targeting radar arrays, but also lower-frequency early-warning radars that have previously been able to spot stealth fighters, even if they haven’t been able to lead a weapon to them.
The lack of vertical tail surfaces could mean these new fighters aren’t quite fighters as we’ve come to understand them. Because the NGAD is expected to fly in concert with a constellation of low-observable drones, there’s reason to believe America’s next air superiority fighters may not be as aerobatic as the world’s currently top-dog-fighter, the F-22 Raptor. Instead, it may prioritize low-observability, situational awareness, and long-range engagements over getting up close and personal with enemy jets.
Over the past few decades, there has been a growing sentiment within the American defense apparatus that the days of aerobatic dogfighting in close quarters have come to an end, thanks to advanced sensors and highly capable long-range air-to-air weapon systems. Whether or not this is true is subject to a great deal of debate, but there’s reason to believe the Air Force may adopt this line of thinking for the NGAD program.
America’s new “fighter” could actually be more of a “mother ship,” tasking highly capable drone wingmen with various objectives and building upon the F-35’s “quarterback in the sky” mentality, rather than the F-22’s dogfighting dominance.
A recent report from the Congressional Research Service conspicuously leaves room for this interpretation of the NGAD fighter’s mission.
“For example, a larger aircraft the size of a B-21 may not maneuver like a fighter. But that large an aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon, with multiple engines making substantial electrical power for that weapon, could ensure that no enemy flies in a large amount of airspace. That is air dominance,” the reports adds.
Of course, it’s possible that despite lacking a tail section, the NGAD may still offer a high degree of maneuverability. The F-22 Raptor’s Northrop competitor, the YF-23, did not come with a traditional tail section or thrust vector control, but was said to offer nearly comparable aerobatic performance to the F-22. As we’ve posited in the past, new technologies like Active Flow Control could also make the jet rather nimble, even without traditional control surfaces.