Skunk Works Cryptically Teases NGAD-Like Aircraft Silhouette

Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works advanced projects division has posted a cryptic planform drawing of an aircraft on Instagram. The post appears directly related to its 80th anniversary publicity push and its constant teasing that there is much they can’t show us… just yet. This is hardly a surprise for an institution that helped mold the deeply classified weapons development ecosystem that exists today.

The aircraft in question appears to be a Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)-like manned tactical aircraft design or at least somehow related to it. We know that at least one NGAD demonstrator has been flying for years and that as many as three demonstrators have since been in testing. There are major indications that there has been a down-select and just two companies fighting are fighting for the opportunity to build the manned NGAD aircraft. It will sit as the centerpiece of the NGAD ‘family of systems,’ which includes new weapons, sensors, networking architecture, engine technology, and above all else, a host of highly autonomous unmanned aircraft, including Collaborative Combat Aircraft or CCAs.

As it sits, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says each manned NGAD aircraft will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and about 200 is the current targeted fleet size. The aircraft would replace the F-22 — which is being used to test NGAD component technologies — in terms of force structure, but its mission would be considerably different. By every account, just as we have been pleading for many years, the manned NGAD aircraft will be optimized for range, payload, and low-observability (stealth), not extreme ‘fighter’ maneuverability. Its mission to fight as part of a highly integrated, deep-penetrating team of systems over great distances reflects these qualities. ‘Spectral warfare’ is also a key component of its overall design — among other cutting-edge technologies — which will likely be in the heavy fighter/interceptor size class or larger.

The mysterious outline looks very much like what we have seen from multiple contractors, and especially Lockheed Martin, as far as a notional manned NGAD aircraft designs. These features include a large modified delta-like planform that lacks horizontal and vertical stabilizers and a large streamlined canopy.

Lockheed Martin concept art for a next generation air combat aircraft. Lockheed Martin
Another piece of concept art from Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin
Another similar design presented by Collins Aerospace. Collins Aerospace

What’s also of interest here is that this aircraft silhouette looks like it is the ‘missing aircraft’ from the Skunk Works’ 80th anniversary marketing materials. Of course the blank space at the end of the lineage banner (seen below) is also likely something of a placeholder for the many projects they are working on but cannot disclose. That is a common practice for the famed ‘bleeding-edge’ aerospace design house —leaving a blank space of some kind for the still very secret. Still, the fact that they would cryptically highlight this particular design without explanation is telling.

Notice the blank space at the end of the lineage banner. Skunk Works

With the final manned NGAD aircraft selection still months away, Skunk Works is clearly signalling their intention to take the contract for what very well could be the last manned tactical high-performance jet for the Air Force.

Finally, we must not forget that the Navy has its own very similar NGAD program that is also perusing a manned tactical fighter called F/A-XX, as part of a similar carrier-borne next generation air combat ecosystem. You can read all about that effort here and here. There’s nothing to say that the notional design we are seeing doesn’t represent that too, or serve as a placeholder for both.

Either way, the age of NGAD is approaching, and with it, prime contractors’ hopes to be central to it are reflected in their marketing materials.

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