An unusual patch reportedly out of Boeing’s secretive Phantom Works division may have just given us our first glimpse behind the curtain at the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance fighter… or at least, that’s one possibility.
On Tuesday, Aviation Week Defense and Space Editor Steve Trimble posted a story entitled, “How A Phantom Works Project Fits The Secretive NGAD Profile,” accompanied by a single image of an unusual patch with the phrase, “Voodoo II” emblazoned across the top and “two-o-hunder” written across the bottom. To the untrained eye, this patch looks a lot like any number of indiscernible aviation patches you might find littering tables at flea markets and military surplus stores, but to Trimble’s uniquely experienced perspective, this patch offers quite a bit more.
“Aerospace DAILY can reveal three facts: the Voodoo II patch shown here is legitimate; the patch represents a real Phantom Works project; and the project took place within the past four years,” Trimble wrote. “The nature of the project can also be described: the Voodoo II represented a configuration of a next-generation fighter concept that Phantom Works tested in a wind tunnel.”
Now, Trimble himself cautions that this patch may represent just one of many rapid prototyping endeavors carried out by the Phantom Works each year, but he also lays out a reasonable argument for the idea that the Voodoo II may be more than that. In fact, according to Trimble’s research, this patch may be our first serious glimpse of America’s next air superiority fighter.
But just how much faith can we place in this possibility, and if it’s true, what would that mean for the NGAD program?
Related: Air Force announces NGAD fighter will be fast-tracked into service
What do we know about the Voodoo II?
To be clear, everything we have to go off of in relation to this patch or its possible ties to the Next Generation Air Dominance program stems from the reporting of one man: Steve Trimble. If you’re an aviation nerd and you’re not already familiar with Trimble’s name, you’ve almost certainly come across his work. His career in defense journalism spans decades, starting out with the Army Times back in 1997, before helping to launch Military.com in 2000. By 2001, he had joined the internationally respected team at Aviation Week, while also writing at times for other reputable outlets like Jane’s Defence Weekly and FlightGlobal.
Trimble’s won a number of awards for his work over the years, including splitting the Defence Media Award for best aviation coverage in 2022 with another aviation journalist that you might have heard of… me.
All that is to say that Trimble is a very credible source, but he’s not speaking in absolutes. While he does offer some intriguing details about this patch and its potential implications, he’s careful to explain that what we’re really talking about here is a big, “what if?“
According to Trimble, this Voodoo II effort took place within the secretive confines of Boeing’s Phantom Works — the firm’s equivalent to Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works — over the past four years.
The stated aim was to field a sixth-generation fighter that would require fewer than 4,000 hours in a wind tunnel to be made aerobatically capable compared to the 40,000 hours required by 5th-generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22.
According to Trimble’s reporting, they succeeded at doing just that.
But what about the name, Voodoo II? Trimble suggests that it’s a callback to the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo that first flew in 1954 and was the second fighter in the so-called “Century Series” of jets from that era. That would make a great deal of sense, as former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, Will Roper, launched a Digital Century Series in 2019 with the stated aim of using modern digital tools to reduce the cost and time required to field an advanced new fighter.
As such, it doesn’t seem like a massive stretch to think this patch came from a Phantom Works program aimed at fielding an advanced fighter for the Digital Century Series that harkens back to a McDonnel (which later became McDonnell Douglas before merging with Boeing in 1997) aircraft from the original “century series.”
Although Boeing isn’t the first firm you might think of when it comes to stealth aviation, the truth is, their low-observable track record actually stretches back further than their Skunk Works competitors. Not only did Boeing develop the X-32 that competed with the F-35 for the Joint Strike Fighter contract, but they also built and tested the YF-118G Bird of Prey in the ’90s, which was a stealth technology demonstrator flown exclusively over Area 51. But their earliest stealth aircraft design, the largely-forgotten Model 853-21 Quiet Bird, predated the F-117 Nighthawk by nearly a decade and a half.
As Trimble points out, Boeing’s Phantom Works did break ground on a massive new 200,000-square-foot composite manufacturing facility in Mesa, Arizona last year, and so far, they’ve yet to reveal what they’ll be building within its sprawling expanse. That, in conjunction with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall saying the NGAD program had “effectively” reached the start of the engineering and manufacturing development phase, all suggest that it’s at least possible that Boeing’s Voodoo II may have won the NGAD contract and is now cruising toward service within the coming decade.
Now, it’s important to once again reaffirm that this is informed speculation that Trimble does not present as fact, and it’s important that we don’t either.
Related: Bird of Prey: Boeing’s lost budget-busting stealth fighter
The Century Series reborn
The original Century Series of fighters were, in themselves, groundbreaking aircraft. These jets, which ranged from the F-100 that entered service in 1954 to the F-106 that entered service in 1959, were America’s first supersonic fighters, the first to break Mach 2, the first to be designed as a system with radars, weapons, and capabilities in mind, and the first fighter bombers to carry nuclear weapons. These aircraft were defined by their forward-leaning approach to technologies, just as the Digital Century Series is today.
But the connection between these two series of fighters is more than skin deep. In a Rand Corporation study penned by Leland Johnson all the way back in 1960 entitled, “The Century Series Fighters: A Study in Research and Development,” Johnson posits that the jets from this series all shared two striking features. The first was the high level of uncertainty inherent to trying to field fighters that leverage truly state-of-the-art technologies, which is almost certainly a parallel you could draw to today’s programs, but the second actually speaks directly to something the Air Force and Navy have discussed in regard to the Next Generation Air Dominance program itself: the fact that components developed for these fighters were “very flexible in the sense that they can often be successfully used in aircraft for which they were not originally planned.”
Johnson goes on to explain the way subsystems developed for Century Series fighters often had a high degree of “applicability” in other systems, adding that, in some cases, it proved more logical to develop subsystems almost independently until technological challenges can be overcome and those systems can be leveraged in a variety of platforms.
This, you may already be aware, is a driving force in the NGAD effort, which is not only aimed at fielding a new air superiority fighter, but also has branches that reach all the way to the Navy’s own fighter-in-development under the program pseudonym F/A-XX.
Although the Air Force and Navy intend to field different fighters tailored specifically for their respective needs, Defense officials have repeatedly stated that they will likely share a number of modular subsystems aimed at not only reducing overall costs, but at streamlining future improvements as well.
Related: The massive carrier problem the Navy’s F/A-XX has to solve
What do we know about NGAD?
The U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program, or NGAD, is an effort to field the next generation of air superiority fighters. The goal is to field a platform capable of dominating enemy airspace for decades to come, but in a more immediate sense, it means fielding a fighter that can outclass America’s in-service air-to-air champ, the legendary F-22 Raptor.
As capable as the mighty Raptor may be, Air Force officials have been clear that its dated airframe, which has been flying since 1997, is approaching a ceiling in terms of increasing capability. Air Force officials estimate that the F-22 will no longer be survivable in hotly contested airspace as soon as 2030, despite an ongoing series of upgrades meant to bridge the gap between the Raptor and NGAD, to the tune of some $11 billion.
“We can’t modernize our way out of the problem … just using an updated F-22,” explained Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for Air Force futures.
The effort to replace the F-22 dates back to 2014 in various forms and under numerous banners, including “Air Superiority 2030” and “Penetrating Counter-Air,” but by 2018, the premise behind the program had simmered into a sufficiently concentrated concept to pursue research and development for a real production aircraft, and thus the NGAD moniker was born. Since then, the effort has continued behind a veil of secrecy with Air Force officials occasionally offering updates without showing too much of their hands.
But despite the secrecy, it’s clear the NGAD program has been rolling at full steam ahead. Between 2018 and 2022, the Air Force invested a reported $2.5 billion into the program’s development, with that figure already slated to increase to $9 billion by 2025.
Surpassing the capability of a fighter that’s widely seen as the world’s best is no small undertaking, but NGAD is taking a novel approach. Rather than fielding a single fighter that could beat the Raptor in a one-on-one dogfight, the Air Force is aiming to field a “family of systems” that couples a high-capability crewed fighter with a constellation of AI-enabled drone wingmen.
Those drone wingmen tend to be the focus of discussion about NGAD, but according to Pentagon documents, these drone escorts represent just one-quarter of the program’s overarching goals. The other three include advanced new propulsion systems, new composite materials, and advanced sensors.
Based on renders that have been released by the Air Force and various defense contractors over the past few years, many have come to assume that this new fighter will be far stealthier than today’s stealth jets, thanks in part to the anticipated omission of some classic fighter design elements like vertical tail surfaces. In other words, the crewed NGAD fighter may have more in common with advanced stealth bombers than it does with today’s aerobatic dogfighters.
This could suggest the continuation of a substantive shift toward sensor reach, data fusion, and advanced weapon capabilities over dynamic dogfighting performance in America’s next top-tier fighters. In fact, that’s exactly what the report on the NGAD program produced by the Congressional Research Service last year explains:
“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 would achieve air dominance.”“Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program” by the Congressional Research Service, June 23, 2022
Related: Here’s your first look at the B-21 Raider, America’s new stealth bomber
NGAD may not be an aerobatic dogfighter, but it could still be a hotrod
But, while it’s clear that this new aircraft may not be capable of putting on as dynamic an airshow as the thrust-vectoring F-22 Raptor, that doesn’t mean this new fighter will be a slouch in the performance department.
Back in 2020, the aforementioned Will Roper revealed to the world that the Air Force had already flown a “full-scale flight demonstrator” of the NGAD fighter, and while he offered very little elaboration, he did add that the aircraft had “broken a lot of records.”
Now, Roper obviously didn’t tell us which records it had broken, and there’s a chance that he was simply being hyperbolic — but there are some records we could feasibly accept as likely candidates, based on the challenges we know platforms like NGAD and the Navy’s F/A-XX have to overcome. Chief among these are concerns about the tyranny of distance in a conflict over the Pacific.
America’s current fighters simply don’t have the range to be truly effective in a conflict over a vast area like the Pacific, which means the next slew of fighters to emerge will almost certainly boast a significant increase in combat radius. That will come, in part, from advanced new engines that offer more efficiency, as well as from what will likely be a larger airframe with much more fuel storage.
But covering great distances alone isn’t enough for an air superiority fighter — it’s also got to be able to close with opponents at high sustained speeds — a requirement the Raptor fills through its supercruise capability. Supercruising is the ability to maintain supersonic speeds without the continued use of your fuel-hungry afterburners. The Raptor is said to supercruise at speeds in excess of Mach 1.5, and it seems likely that the NGAD fighter will be able to muster even more than that if its to be effective at longer ranges. It also stands to reason that this new fighter will be able to fly at extremely high altitudes, something that tends to go hand-in-hand with high-speed airframes.
As such, some of the records Roper may have been referencing could have been for unrefueled range, sustained supercruise speed, service ceiling, or even top speed for airplanes of its class… or even more dramatically, for air-breathing aircraft in general.
Of course, there’s a big difference between setting records for fighters and records for any operational aircraft. The fastest operational American fighter in history is the F-15C, with a disclosed top speed of Mach 2.5 or better and a service ceiling of 65,000 feet (though it’s possible that the F-22 can best either of these in an undisclosed setting). But beating any American aircraft would mean besting the SR-71’s top speed of better than Mach 3.2 with a service ceiling of 85,000 feet.
That… seems unlikely… but exciting.
Related: What kind of fighter could the latest military tech really build?
Can we glean anything about the Voodoo II from its predecessor?
If Boeing did opt to name their NGAD entrant the Voodoo II, then it seems feasible that the decision was made with marketing in mind — using the historical reference as a storytelling tool to highlight certain strengths or capabilities delivered by their design. The question then would be, what were the defining strengths or capabilities of the original Voodoo that Boeing might want to conjure in the minds of defense officials and lawmakers in their promotional materials?
The F-101 Voodoo began as a modification of the Mcdonnel XF-88 Voodoo prototype that first emerged in 1948. Originally intended as a bomber escort, the XF-88 saw a significant revamp that included a longer fuselage for increased fuel storage and redesigned engine housings and intakes for larger turbojet engines. This new F-101 Voodoo was classified as a “strategic fighter” with a variety of potential missions, from bomber escort to delivering nuclear bombs, and entered service with the Air Force in September 1954.
The second production iteration of the Voodoo, the F-101B, was a two-seat model fielded with very interesting air-to-air weapons mounted within an internal rotary bay. Initially, the F-101B flew with two AIM-4A semi-active radar-guided missiles and two AIM-4B infrared-guided weapons. As one missile was fired, the rotary system would flip, placing the next in firing position.
However, this loadout was later modified to include two AIM-4C infrared-guided missiles and two AIR-2 Genie nuclear rockets that were, without a doubt, the most insane air-to-air weapon ever fielded by the United States or any of its allies. These nuclear rockets were meant to take out entire fleets of Soviet bombers at once, and we have a full dive into the depths of the Genie’s insanity that you can read here.
But despite the F-101B’s capability to lob atomic rockets at enemy aircraft, it seems most likely that Boeing is channeling the Voodoo’s contemporary reputation as a groundbreaking and record-setting speedster — which could give an additional layer of *winking* meaning to Will Roper’s claims that the NGAD flight demonstrator had already “broken a lot of records.”
The original Voodoo set the transcontinental speed record flying from Los Angeles to New York and back again in less than seven hours in 1957. Just about a month later in that same year, another F-101A set a new absolute world speed record of 1,207.6 mph (1943.4 kph) over the Mojave Desert in California.
As Boeing puts it on their historical snapshot of the Voodoo that’s hosted on their webpage, the aircraft’s nickname of “One-oh-Wonder” that’s directly referenced in the new Phantom Works patch was born out of this impressive high-speed performance and record-setting reputation.
Related: The Air Force is eyeing groundbreaking new engines for the F-35
Let’s circle back to that Phantom Works patch…
So, armed with our new understanding of how the original Century Series mirrors the Digital Century Series of today, as well as the F-101 Voodoo’s reputation as a record-setting speed demon with the nickname “One-oh-Wonder,” let’s take another look at the Phantom Works patch Steve Trimble shared.
The top of the patch clearly shows the name “Voodoo II,” which Trimble has already associated with a 6th generation fighter program out of Boeing’s Phantom Works. The “two-o-hunder” scrawled across the bottom is likewise a reference to the original voodoo, and in particular, its reputation as a record-breaking speedster.
Trimble states that this program has taken place over the past four years, meaning from roughly 2019 to 2023 (or maybe 2018 to 2022), and in 2020, Will Roper stated clearly that the Air Force was flying a technology demonstrator for the NGAD program that, as we’ve discussed, was already breaking records.
That original one-oh-wonder nickname is often discussed as a reference to the F-101’s top speed of greater than Mach 1, or sometimes as a reference to its top speed of greater than 1,000 miles per hour. As such, it’s possible that the Voodoo II’s “two-o-hunder” is in reference to double one of these speeds — perhaps the ability to supercruise at Mach 2 or better, but the more interesting possibility could be a top speed of 2,000 miles per hour, which would translate to a record-breaking Mach 2.6 at the right altitude.
The Voodoo II’s role within the Digital Century Series could likely mirror that of the original Voodoo in the original Century Series — fielding aircraft subsystems that will likely find their way into other airframes, particularly that of the Navy’s forthcoming F/A-XX, and we know that Boeing’s Phantom Works has already begun work on a massive new composite construction facility, as well as the fact that composite materials are seen as one of the four primary NGAD development efforts.
When you collect all of this information and present it like that, it does look an awful lot like Boeing’s Voodoo II may just be the basis for America’s next air superiority fighter being developed within the NGAD program… but to be completely clear here, this evidence remains largely circumstantial.
While I would be comfortable saying that it certainly looks like Boeing may be the lead in America’s latest fighter effort, I would not be willing to go so far as to say this case is closed.
But to close on a quote from Trimble himself, “The identity of the Air Force’s NGAD program winner remains a mystery. In the meantime, remember the Voodoo II.“
Read more from Sandboxx News
- Air Force announces NGAD fighter will be fast-tracked into service
- What artist renderings tell us about the NGAD fighter
- X-44 Manta: How Lockheed nailed the NGAD in the ’90s
- What kind of fighter could the latest military tech really build?
- New fighter programs like NGAD are learning what not to do from the F-35
G W says
Why is everyone treating “hunder” as if it was a word? While I admit John’s comment that “hunder” sounds phonetically like “hundred,” there’s a much simpler explanation.
The stylized logo in the middle of the word (which, probably not coincidentally looks like the tiki-face-with-wings logo from the original voodoo patch), is in the form of a “T” and in the appropriate placement, making the patch: “Two-o-Thunder.”
One-on-wonder, Two-o-Thunder. Simple.
I hope Trump knows nothing about all this !!!!! He sold us short !!! Every other country has jet fighters that look like our fighter jets. Sad. What you have now, NO ONE CAN TOUCH !!!! KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK..
No serving F-15 can actually hit m2.5….
The F-15 that did it was lightened, specially prepared, no pylons, no weapons, half fuel…it managed to do it for a very short period of time and then had to RTB…it was also done in very favourable conditions and location…
Speak to an F-15C pilot and they’ll all tell you the same thing. You can’t fly at more than m1.8 in an F-15 with a minimal air to air loadout. And even then thats with full burner running…so you’ve only got a few seconds at that speed before the fuel dial clocks down to zero (don’t forget that it takes a bit of a run up to reach that speed in the first place…).
F-22 has a slower ‘top speed’ than F-15, it won’t hit m2.5. It’s believed it tops out around m2.2/2.3. Completely impractical in operational conditions of course.
However….it can maintain much higher speeds in operational use due to internal weapons and fuel. It can supercruise at m1.6+….with weapons. If you plugged the burners in it would go to m2.0.
Right now there is only 1 aircraft that can compete with F-22 in terms of outright performance. Typhoon will supercruise at m1.5+ with an air to air loadout. Both F-22 and Typhoon are optimised to fight high and fast. Allegedly the Rafale will reach m1.2 with an air to air loadout (albeit smaller than F-22 or Typhoon due to limited conformal carry).
Everything else, including all SU-27 derivatives, SU-57, F-35, F-15, F-16, F-18, J-20, J-11, FC-31 cannot supercruise, lacking the thrust to push through the transonic boundary without using afterburner (SU-57, FC-31 and J-20 might if their engine developments bear fruit, but they’re unlikely to reach F-22/Typhoon levels as the gap is too great). Saab claim that Gripen-E can supercruise…but no-one believes them…at least not with any weapon load…it remains to be seen if the potential advanced engines promised for F-35 enable it to achieve this. I suspect not.
The ability to supercruise, and go supersonic effortlessly, is a huge advance that many don’t take into account….military aircraft used to rarely go supersonic, most pilots could count on the fingers of 1 hand how many times they had in a career. Even in the 1980’s, with the vast Cold War air fleets, the British Airways Concorde fleet of 7 aircraft spent more hours per year flying supersonic than the entire USAF, USN and USMC inventories did combined…(even including SR-71).
Gene Cruz says
Here’s another take on the “Two-O-Hunder” on the patch. Seeing as they’re referring to the systems under NGAD as a new century series, then it stands to reason it’ll be an F-200 designation that kicks off the series. The F-100 Super Saber had a nickname of “The Hun”. So the word HUNDER on the patch could indicate that the VOODOO II could carry said designation of F-200 Voodoo II. I don’t believe that the word on the patch is an indication of a speed of 2K since that would only have been determined during flight testing and the aircraft most likely had the name Voodoo II and patch while it was still on the digital drawing board.
is dialectal variant tgabet
John Murphy says
“hunder” is dialectal variant of HUNDRED (Merriam-Webster). The alphanumeric “Two-0-Hundred” would then be 2,000, numerically.