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.