A US Department of Defense (DoD) contract notification has offered a hint that the US could field a new fighter aircraft by FY 2029.
The $74m contract notice with Raytheon for the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) aircraft integration mentions a number of existing airframes but leaves the option open for future integration on to current or next-generation fighters before the close of fiscal year 2029.
The contract notice reads: “This contract will provide the necessary aircraft lab, flight test, flight clearance and simulation support during all integration requirements in AMRAAM for F-15, F-16, FA-18, F-22, F-35 and other current inventory or next-generation platforms that may join the Air Force or Navy inventory before the end of fiscal 2029.”
Currently, the US Air Force is engaged in an effort to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet under its next-generation air dominance programme (NGAD).
If the contract notice does reference NGAD, it would see the US field a next-generation aircraft far quicker than comparative European development projects for future fighters.
The contract award could also potentially point to the future integration of AMRAAM onto the Skyborg future ‘Loyal Wingman’ uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) also currently being explored by the US Air Force.
As reported by The War Zone, past videos demonstrating the Skyborg programme have included rendered footage of the future drone launching an AMRAAM.
Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) research fellow and editor of RUSI Defence Systems Justin Bronk told Air Force Technology that the possibility existed that the US Air Force of uncrewed combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) capabilities that could be equipped with AMRAAM.
However, he added that the notification may also be legalese in order to not limit future integration opportunities.
Bronk said: “it’s also the case that this may simply be smart contractual language to avoid being caught by limitations on a supply tender in the event that the USAF decides to integrate AMRAAM on more platforms in some unforeseen context; rather than an indicator that they have something definite that they are thinking of at this moment in time.”
Last September, former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference that the service had already built and flown a prototype NGAD fighter.
At the time, Roper said: “NGAD has come so far, that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world and it’s broken a lot of records in the doing.”
Before this in 2019, Defense News reported that Roper believed a new fighter jet could be designed and built from scratch in five years.
NGAD has been described as a family of platforms, likely to include a crewed fighter jet as well as accompanying UAVs designed to support it.
Defense News also recently reported that Air Combat Command head General Mark Kelly was concerned that China could field a sixth-generation ahead of the US.
Kelly said: “I am confident that the technology and the test points have developed to where NGAD technology will get fielded,
“And I’m confident that the adversaries on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war. What I don’t know — and we’re working with our great partners — is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us.”