Tag: 6th generation fighter

Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024

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Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024
An Italian Air Force F-35B during a joint training mission with an Italian Navy F-35B. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

The Italian MoD is continuing the modernization of the military, with investments in many areas that will also sustain the national industry.

The Italian government published, during the summer, the new multiyear defense planning document (Documento Programmatico Pluriennale della Difesa) for 2022-2024, which illustrates the funding needed by the Italian military to sustain and modernize its forces. Many important investments can be found in the document, but let’s proceed in order.

The strategic situation is based, as last year, on a reference scenario, called the “extended Mediterranean” region, which is currently subject to many important geopolitical changes. Among the critical aspects of the region, the document mentions the Libyan situation, the tensions between coastal countries that are rearming their military forces, the disputes about sea boundaries and commercial routes. These challenges add up to the global situation, with COVID-19 and the new role of Russia and China becoming increasingly important.

The Italian Ministry of Defense is focused on maintaining a balanced military power, while also renovating and potentiating it with new capabilities. An important novelty in the last few years are the space and cyber domains, which are set to provide new space for innovation in the informational and decisional sectors.

The systemic shock caused by the dramatic evolution of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whose economic and social repercussions are noticeable in an international context already burdened by the echo of the pandemic and by multiple situations of unresolved conflict, will radically change the world order and European security that we have known so far, says the document.

The invasion brought back the attention to the importance of symmetrical conflicts against near peer adversaries, after decades of asymmetrical conflict against irregular forces, revealed a significant conventional, cyber and space threat, and even evoked again the nuclear threat. The return of war in Europe, which someone thought would accentuate the disagreements among the European countries, has instead determined the effect of cementing the cohesion of NATO and of raising the role of the European Union to an organization with a geopolitical value.

This is contrary to the expectations of Russia, which believed it could count on a disunited NATO and on a weak European Union unable to decide. Also, this was an eye-opener about the need for a strengthened military, after years of postponed investments which were needed to increase its deterrent value and to respect the commitments, undertaken in the NATO context, for the achievement of the threshold of 2% of GDP for the Defense budget.

In this perspective, the Defense minister Lorenzo Guerini outlined four fundamental strategic priorities: promote an appropriate positioning of Italy in the context of international security; give further impetus to the process of adapting the military instrument; fully exploit the potential that can be expressed by the Defense Industry; continue efforts in terms of policies suitable for addressing current and future challenges.

Let’s now talk about the programs in place to reach the objectives of this year’s Defense planning.

One of the main activities for the aerospace component of the Command, Control and Communications (C3) is the completion of the acquisition of the Gulfstream G550-based CAEW/BM&C capability, as well as a new Electronic Warfare capability. The program, known as P-MMMS (Piattaforma Multi-Missione, Multi- Sensore/Multi-Mission, Multi-Sensor Platform), is aimed at obtaining a modern asset that can be integrated in a net-centric C4ISTAR architecture and later adapted for multi-domain operations.

The resulting C6ISTAR-EW-enabled assets are the CAEW, Spydr and JAMMS aircraft that have been in the works for some years. As we reported last year, a number of “clean” G550 are being acquired to be converted at a later stage, like the one delivered earlier this year. These aircraft, that the document calls “green base JAMMS”, are scheduled to be converted in the Full Mission Capable CAEW and Electronic Combat variants. A contract for the conversion of two more CAEW aircraft might have already been signed.

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

An interesting piece of information possibly related to the P-MMMS program can be found under the Force Protection and Engagement Capability entry, which hints at the Electronic Combat variant of the aircraft possibly being the EC-37B Compass Call. In fact, the entry says: “Completion of the acquisition program for new aircraft equipped for and dedicated to Electronic Warfare operations (EC-37B)”.

As you may know already, the Compass Call system is an airborne tactical electronic attack weapon system installed on a heavily modified version of the C-130 Hercules, called EC-130H Compass Call. This system disrupts enemy command and control communications, radars, and navigation systems and limits adversary coordination, which is essential for enemy force management. Following the type’s retirement announced in 2014, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Compass Call Rehost program, which will move the current Compass Call systems from the EC-130H to the new EC-37B, based on the Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (CAEW) airframe.

Staying on the Electronic Warfare topic, the EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation) fleet is being expanded to a total of three aircraft, with two new ones in the RRP2 (Risk Reduction Phase 2) configuration being converted, together with the procurement of their ground segment and mission system. As we already reported, the EC-27J is a variant of the successful Leonardo C-27J Spartan military transport aircraft that has been heavily modified to perform EW missions: the aircraft carries an internal JEDI system that is coupled with a tail antenna to jam the frequency bands used to remotely operate IEDs and UAVs, in order to neutralize them and thus protect personnel on the ground around areas of interest.

The capabilities provided by the secretive EC-27J (whose official designation is YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series) are intended for the execution of convoy escort missions where it provides from the air an electromagnetic safety bubble. The aircraft was deployed to Erbil, Iraq, for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at national level). Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Speaking of the C-27J, the planning mentions the works for the completion of the MC-27J Praetorian program. The MC-27 is a special variant of the Spartan developed to provide support for the Special Forces of the Comando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS). Three C-27J that were already in service and the ItAF were converted to the Praetorian configuration with the addition of mission systems, C3ISR equipment and a palletized ATK GAU-23 30mm automatic cannon, the same used by the USAF AC-130J.

The Defense planning also includes the Spydr, mentioning the leasing of an aircraft equipped with specialized sensors as gap filler until a dedicated asset capable of assuring a full threat detection. This entry should refer to the two King Air 350s, one of which is a mission-equipped aircraft and the other one used for training purposes, leased from L3Harris. The aircraft is expected to be replaced by Gulfstream G550 aircraft with AISREW Mission Systems whose Foreign Military Sale was approved by the U.S. State Department in 2020.

Two aircraft will be provided by Italy to be converted, with L3Harris being the company contracted to carry out the modification. The “final” shape of the Italian AISREW aircraft should be similar to the one of the Australian MC-55 Peregrine, a SIGINT-configured G550 that L3Harris is providing to the Royal Australian Air Force and developed based on the experience of the EC-37 Compass Call II and other variants. It seems likely that all the modifications will be embedded at a later stage and the first airframe will be initially used for training purposes.

Italy is also continuing its participation in the Maritime Multi Mission Aircraft (M3A) program with other NATO allies, whose aim is to procure a dedicated aircraft for long range surveillance above and belove the sea surface. The M3A is expected to create a new generation of maritime surveillance aircraft that will eventually replace older platform currently in service.

The planning then moves to the information superiority section, with its Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance capabilities enabled by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The first to be mentioned is the EUROMALE program, the first unmanned aerial system (UAS) designed for flight in non-segregated airspace. The airframe is a twin-turboprop with pusher-propeller engines being developed by an Airbus, Leonardo and Dassault consortium. The system is set to provide a generational leap compared to current assets, integrating open architecture, high modularity and ease of evolution.

The other programs in the ISR section are related to the continuation of the modernization, potentiation and completion of the MQ-9 fleet, all listed under the Mid Life Modernization (MLM) and operational capabilities maintenance programs. One of the focuses of these programs is the payload, with the upgrade of sensors and command and control systems to the latest standards.

The document mentions: ”The aircraft will guarantee increased levels of safety and protection in convoys escort missions, providing a flexible defense capability that can be expressed from the air. It will also introduce a new protection option aimed both at forces on the ground and for the benefit of aerial assets during high intensity operations and, ultimately, to protect civilians in the event of a hybrid threat”. This explanation, which was also in last year’s document, was said to refer to the weaponization of the MQ-9.

The weapons were explicitly mentioned in a subsequent entry: “Modernization and renewal of the RPA fleet of the MLE category, the Predator platform, related weapons and interim solutions”. Actually, the U.S. State Department already approved in 2015 a possible FMS to Italy for the weaponization of the MQ-9, but there is no follow-on info about it. The FMS package included AGM-114R2 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 and GBU-49 laser guided bombs, GBU-38 JDAM and GBU-54 Laser JDAM bombs.

The Mid Life Modernization includes the procurement of two new MQ-9A Block 5 aircraft and a ground station, in addition to the upgrade of the other five to the same configuration. One of the new Predators (the name Reaper has not been adopted in Italy) will replace the one shot down in Libya in 2019. Also, the Italian MoD is looking for a new RPA that will replace the MQ-1C Predator A+.

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

While it didn’t provide any new details, this year’s document mentions again the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft and the wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. Tempest is intended to preserve the dominance of the air combat power by capitalizing the Italian and British participation to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. FCAS is described in the program summary as a system of systems, with an optionally unmanned aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced sensors and related technologies.

The UK, Italy and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2021 to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project in a major international endeavour. As of now, Sweden has not yet fully committed to join Tempest, but it is closely observing the process while working on the wider FCAS effort. Anyway, the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximizing their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

Japan is also joining the FCAS program, after a Letter of Arrangement signed earlier this year with the UK. The two countries will conduct cooperative research in fighter jet sensor technology, focusing on what has been called the “Jaguar” system. The “Jaguar” aims at the development of universal frequency sensor technology to allow aircraft to “better detect future threats from air, land and sea, quickly and accurately locating targets and denying surveillance technology operated by adversaries. Japan’s expected role in the FCAS effort has since expanded, including the JNAAM long-range air-to-air missile (which will benefit from the Meteor BVRAAM technology) and a possible merge of the indigenous F-X program with Tempest.

After the 6th gen, the document moves to the current 5th gen with the F-35 Lightning II. The MoD says the program is proceeding as planned for the first two tranches of aircraft, called Phase 1 and Phase 2a. Phase 1 satisfied the requirements for the acquisition of the first 28 aircraft, their engines, equipment, initial expenses and retrofit, together with logistical support until 2022 and the preparation of the national sites in Amendola, Ghedi and the Cavour aircraft carrier.

Now, the Phase 2a has been initiated thanks to a strategy that will avoid further delays in the program and savings which could amount up to one billion euros. This phase covers the procurement of 27 new aircraft, together with their engines and equipment, and the extension of the logistical support. This will allow for a full operational capability from 2030. Also, by the end of the year, the MoD will start the preliminary negotiation for Phase 2b, which will lead to the acquisition of a further 35 aircraft. The total expense expected until 2032 is of seven billion euros. Also, the revenues from the F-35 program on the national industries have reached, by the end of 2021, a total of € 5.17 billion.

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

The Defense planning moves on with the assets currently in service. The Eurofighter Typhoon program now mentions the development of next generation, advanced technology sensors to better promote the national industry in the transition towards the 6th generation. At the same time, the Tornado program is looking to the upgrade of the aircraft to solve obsolescence issues due to the aging technology and to extend the operational life until the planned phase-out date (which has not yet been officially decided).

The Italian Air Force will also work on the completion of its helicopter fleet for the Search And Rescue and Slow Mover Intercept missions. The first entry sees the completion of the acquisition of the HH-139 rescue helicopter, which is an interim solution for a medium helicopter. Earlier this year, the ItAF took delivery of the last HH-139B and the service will now move to the conversion of the HH-139A helicopters to the new B variant. At the same time, the HH-101 CSAR helicopter will be upgraded to the Mission Enhanced standard to better sustain operations in non-permissive environments.

Talking about support assets, this year’s planning confirms the intention of the Italian MoD to acquire two new KC-46 tankers and upgrade the current KC-767s to the same standard. Moreover, the initiation of a strategic transport program is mentioned, without providing further details.

The next topic covered by the planning is the training. The ItAF will strengthen the Operational Training Infrastructure (OTI), focusing on a high integration between live, virtual and constructive activities, while continuing to work with the T-345 and T-346 programs. The OTI program will develop a geo-federate, modular, resilient and secure open architecture, connecting flight simulators, simulation systems and C2 systems to create a common synthetic environment that will reproduce real, complex and highly variable operational environments. An integral part of this program is the modernization of the Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra (PISQ).

Important news are coming also for the helicopter training, with a new helicopter flight school being established in Viterbo, currently home of the Army’s flight school. The new school will exploit the ItAF’s expertise in this sector, with the aim of satisfying the requirement for a joint national training centre for all helicopter pilots, as well as satisfying the requirements for the equivalent civilian licenses and offering training to international partners. The ItAF is also leading the efforts for the new school on behalf of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

The current plan is based around a training area, an operational area (with maintenance, storage and helicopter recovery functions) and a logistic area. The school will employ the new AW169 Light Utility Helicopter to satisfy the requirements of the phase 3b of the training, exploiting the gradual replacement of the six legacy helicopter fleets with the new helicopter. The phase 3b training on the LUH will follow the phase 3a currently performed on the TH-500 helicopter, providing an advanced training phase between the initial 3a training and the helicopters assigned to the operational units.

The school will have a structure similar to the one for the jet pilots at Lecce-Galatina Air Base. In fact, the project is based around an Integrated Training System (ITS) which will include the LUH and the Ground Based Training System (GBTS). The GBTS will be in charge of the ground school, with an Academic Training System, Full Flight Simulators and Flight training Devices, advanced briefing and debriefing systems.

Obviously, the Army will continue to work on the LUH program and, after a first tranche of 17 helicopters approved in 2019, a new tranche of 33 helicopters has been approved. This new combat support helicopter, as we already reported, is not the only new entry in the Italian Army. In fact, the works are proceeding also on the new Leonardo AW249 NEES (Nuovo Elicottero da Esplorazione e Scorta / New Exploration and Escort Helicopter), which is in the middle of an extensive flight test campaign. The MoD expects to procure up to 48 attack helicopters, which will replace the AH-129D currently in service.

Last but not least, the Italian MoD is also working on a Next Generation Fast Helicopter (NGFH)/ Next Generation Rotorcraft (NGRC). Contacts have been established with the U.S. Army for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, with the Minister of Defense also visiting Bell’s facilities to see the V-280 Valor tilt-rotor and the B-360 Invictus reconnaissance helicopter.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

Italy Increasing Tempest Funding And Planning New Support Aircraft Acquisitions

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The mockup of the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft. (Photo: BAE Systems)

The Italian Air Force will get new tankers, SIGINT, and CAEW assets while also continuing the development of special C-27J variants, as disclosed in the new multi-year defense planning document.

The Italian government published the new multiyear defense planning document (Documento Programmatico Pluriennale della Difesa) for 2021-2023, which illustrates the funding needed by the Italian military to sustain and modernize its forces. Many important investments can be found in the document, but let’s proceed in order.

The strategic situation is based on a reference scenario, called the “extended Mediterranean” region, which is currently subject to many important geopolitical changes. Among the critical aspects of the region, the document mentions the Libyan situation, the tensions between coastal countries that are rearming their military forces, the disputes about sea boundaries and commercial routes. These challenges add up to the global situation, with COVID-19 and the new role of Russia and China becoming increasingly important.

The Italian Ministry of Defence is focused on maintaining a balanced military power, while also renovating and potentiating it with new capabilities. Important novelties are the space and cyber domains, which are set to provide new space for innovation in the informational and decisional sectors.

The first major program mentioned in the document is the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft and the wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. Tempest is intended to preserve the dominance of the air combat power by capitalizing on the Italian and British participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. FCAS is described in the program summary as a system of systems, with an optionally unmanned aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced sensors, and related technologies.

The planning sees a new investment of 2 billion euros by the Italian government over the next 15 years, financing the research and development activities. The document mentions a total of 6B Euro for the completion of the research and development. This Italian investment follows the disclosure of a £250 million contract by the United Kingdom to formally begin the Concept and Assessment Phase, as part of a bigger £2 billion investment over the next four years.

This next phase of the Tempest program will see investment in both digital and physical infrastructure on which the system will be developed, giving priority to the digital aspect as simulated design and testing can significantly reduce costs, time and emissions. The industry partners of Team Tempest will develop this way a range of digital concepts, embedding new tools and techniques to design, evaluate, and shape the final design and capability requirements of Tempest.

Last year, the UK, Italy, and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project into a major international endeavor. Together, the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximizing their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes, and universities.

The EC-27J JEDI flying over Iraq. (Photo: Italian Air Force)

The next program mentioned in the multiyear defense planning document is the continuation of the development of the dedicated Special Operations variant of the C-27J Spartan, called MC-27J Praetorian. A total fleet of three aircraft is planned to serve with the Italian Air Force. A total investment of € 99 million is estimated, with the first tranche over the next five years, worth 80 million, currently being approved.

The MC-27J development was first started in 2013, with the Italian Air Force envisioning palletized support and fire systems that would be used to convert three C-27Js already in service. The fire support configuration sees the aircraft equipped with a side-firing GAU-23 30 mm gun, the same used by the USAF AC-130J, mission systems, and C3ISR equipment. The aircraft will provide support for the Special Forces of the Commando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS) and was already tested during Special Operations exercises.

The defense planning provides funds also for the other special variant of the Spartan, the EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation). The first tranche of 27 million euros, out of a total required investment of 29 million euros, is being distributed over the next four years for the Risk Reduction Phase 2, focused on the development of the final configuration of the JEDI Electronic Warfare system and the serialization of the fleet.

The JEDI differs from the baseline Spartan because it has been extensively modified to perform Electronic Warfare missions: along with a characteristic antenna on the tail, the EC-27J carry an internal JEDI system that is used to create an “umbrella” of electronic emissions that protect personnel on the ground from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). To be more precise, the program description mentions that the JEDI can perform convoy escort missions to increase the protection against radio-controlled IEDs.

The JEDI system has been completely designed by the ReSTOGE (Reparto Supporto Tecnico Operativo Guerra Elettronica – Electronic Warfare Technical Support Department), based at Pratica di Mare airbase. This unit is responsible for compiling, updating, and managing the EW (Electronic Warfare) and self-protection libraries of all the Italian Air Force aircraft. The JEDI package can be installed on standard NATO pallets so as to quickly reconfigure the capability by means of a “roll-on and roll-off” procedure.

Two airframes are believed to have been converted to the EC-27J variant (or YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series), with the type reaching earlier this year the 5,000 flight hours mark since Aug. 10, 2016, when it was first deployed to Iraq for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at the national level). Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Another priority program for the Italian Defence is the new multi-mission/multi-sensor aircraft, also known as JAMMS (Joint Airborne Multi-sensor Multi-mission System). This program, which was already mentioned in the Defense Policy Document last year, envisions a “multi-mission Gulfstream G550-based system with modern sensors for strategic intelligence and electronic superiority, able to integrate into a C4ISTAR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) architecture for real-time information sharing and to operate both in autonomous and joint environments, with future provisions for Multi-Domain Command and Control and Electronic Protection”.

A total investment of 1,223.1 million Euro is being financed for this program which, as we already reported, should cover the acquisition of the first two Full Mission Capable (FMC) aircraft and six “green” airframes that can be converted at a later stage to either JAMMS or CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) configurations, together with logistic and infrastructural support. According to the available info,  the new Gulfstream, whose designation is still unknown (supposedly E-550B or R-550), might be similar to the MC-55A Peregrine that the Royal Australian Air Force is purchasing for SIGINT (Signal Intelligence). Both aircraft also have L3Harris as prime contractors.

In continuity with the JAMMS program, the defense planning financed with 925 million Euro over 12 years the implementation of the CAEW system on a part of the “green” airframes mentioned before. The description further mentions that the two variants will be defined as CAEW and Electronic Combat, with the former providing Airborne Early Warning and Battlefield Management and Communication as Command and Control (C2) multiplier, and the latter focused on the inhibition of enemy C2 capabilities and the use Electronic Support Measures (ESM) to support friendly forces.

An interesting mention goes to the joint Future Fast Rotorcraft program, which has the objective of studying new helicopter technologies for the development of a Next-Generation Fast Helicopter. More precisely, the planning document mentions the beginning of the second phase next year, looking for synergies with international programs. As already reported, Italy is one of the countries interested in the US Future Vertical Lift program, with Leonardo reportedly in talks with Lockheed Martin, which is looking for a European partner to handle European sales and share risk costs.

Another interesting mention goes to Loitering Ammunitions, which are getting a 3.88 million Euro investment over the next five years. This should be the first time that this new capability is being discussed for acquisition by the Italian military. The loitering ammunition, which in the photo are represented by the Hero-30 developed by Israeli UAV manufacturer Uvision, will provide surveillance, reconnaissance, and engagement capabilities to augment the protection of the forces deployed abroad. The program also mentions a focus on the reduction of the risks of collateral damage.

A rendering of the European MALE RPAS. (Photo: Leonardo)

The next program that we are going to talk about is quite unexpected. Among the measures to preserve the national Air-to-Air Refueling capability, the Italian Air Force is acquiring two new KC-767 tankers in their latest version and to upgrade the aircraft already in service to the equivalent U.S. Air Force standard. While not explicitly stated, this should mean that the Italian Air Force will become the next operator of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, although it is not known if the Italian tankers will assume the new designation or retain the older KC-767 one, maybe as KC-767B to differentiate from the original KC-767A currently in service.

With this program, Italy will join Israel and Japan as export operators of the KC-46 Pegasus, with the latter also operating the KC-767A. The Italian government will invest 1,410 million euros in the program, even if the total funds needed are still being defined. Following the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw extensive use of the KC-767 to evacuate Italian citizens, the tanker program also includes new StratEvac (Strategic Evacuation) kits to safely transport patients who need intensive care.

The defense planning includes once again the European MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) being developed by Leonardo, Airbus and Dassault. The program will fund the development, acquisition, and logistical support of the aircraft as part of a European consortium focused on the incrementation of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities. The drone will feature an open architecture with modular systems, easily upgradable and capable of safely flying in non-segregated airspace with other traffic.

Among its missions, the RPAS will provide Defence and Homeland Security, intelligence support, prevention and contrast of illicit activities, the contrast of illegal exploitation of migrants, the contrast of illicit overseas traffic, and control of the national soil for the prevention of natural calamities. 1,872.72 million euros are being funded for the European MALE RPAS, which is deemed strategic for the national industry and thus funded also by the Ministry for Economical Development.

Another program related to RPAS assets is the one regarding the MQ-9 payload. This program is funding 59 million euros, out of a total of 168 million, for the upgrade of sensors, payload, and command and control systems to the latest standard. Considering the presence of the generic mention of payload and the image of an armed U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, some analysts pointed to a possible weapon integration on the Italian MQ-9 fleet, a topic that has been in the talks for years. A quite generic description accompanies the investment, leaving the program’s goal open to interpretation: “The aircraft will provide incremented security levels and protection during convoy escort missions, making available [for ground troops] a flexible defense capability from the air. Moreover, [the aircraft] will introduce a new option for protection of ground troops and air assets during high-intensity operations.”

 

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for The Aviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time, he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

United Kingdom Signs Contract To Formally Start Tempest’s Concept And Assessment Phase

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft. (Photo: BAE Systems)

With this new contract the Tempest programme will now progress to the next phase that will shape the final design and capabilities of the 6th gen aircraft.

The British Ministry of Defence awarded BAE Systems a contract worth £250 million to formally begin the Concept and Assessment Phase of the Tempest 6th generation aircraft program, part of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This contract is just the initial part of a bigger £2 billion investment that the United Kingdom Government has planned over the next four years in the recent Defence Command Paper.

This next phase of the Tempest programme will see investment in both digital and physical infrastructure on which the system will be developed, giving priority to the digital aspect as simulated design and testing can significantly reduce costs, time and emissions. The industry partners of Team Tempest will develop this way a range of digital concepts, embedding new tools and techniques to design, evaluate and shape the final design and capability requirements of Tempest.

“Today marks a momentous step in the next phase of our Future Combat Air System, with a multi-million pound investment that draws on the knowledge and skills of our UK industry experts. Boosting our already world-leading air industry, the contract will sustain thousands of jobs across the UK and will ensure that the UK remains at the top table when it comes to combat air”, said Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence, when he announced the contract during a visit to BAE Systems’ Warton site.

BAE Systems’ facilities in Warton are the centre of development for the Tempest programme and also home to the so-called “Factory of the Future”, a first-of-its-kind, fully connected, digital factory created by BAE Systems with state-of-the-art Industry 4.0 technology to demonstrate a revolutionary approach to the manufacturing of military aircraft in the future. BAE Systems is one of the four founding members of Team Tempest, which also includes partners Leonardo UK, Rolls Royce and MBDA UK.

“Working with our industry partners and the Ministry of Defence, we are on track to deliver an ambitious programme for the UK, which will provide a highly advanced and sophisticated air defence capability, capable of countering future threats and safeguarding our national security and defence”, said Chris Boardman, Group Managing Director of BAE Systems’ Air Sector. “The funding announced today marks a critical next step for the programme and, with our partners, we will work together to define the technical and capability requirements and develop the concept which will bring Tempest to life. Tempest offers an exciting opportunity for the next generation of talent to develop rewarding careers, contributing to important work in support of the defence of our nation. The coming years represent one of the most exciting periods in the history of our industry and, as a team, we have a chance to be part of something genuinely historic, transforming the way we develop and deliver.”

A representation of the Tempest “system of systems” concept. (Photo: Royal Air Force)

Leonardo also welcomed the news about the contract, which underlines the UK Government’s confidence in the progress and maturity of the Tempest programme. “In 2018, the four UK industry partners came together with the MOD to form Team Tempest, embarking on an exciting and ambitious national project to deliver the next generation of combat air”, said Norman Bone, Chair and Managing Director of Leonardo UK . “Since then, we have made great strides towards that goal, with new technologies developed and demonstrated, and transformational new ways of working established across a digital enterprise. Italy and Sweden have joined as international partners, reinforcing the project and establishing FCAS as a major international endeavour. Today, the UK’s commitment has been reaffirmed, and I’m delighted that Leonardo will remain at the core of the programme as we transition to the FCAS concept and assessment phase.”

According to the Royal Air Force’s press release, the Concept and Assessment phase will define and begin to design the Future Combat Air System, mature technologies across the system, invest in skilled workforce that will work on the project, secure digital and physical infrastructure and tools that underpin cutting-edge digital engineering, data and software-based systems and, finally, enable major programme choices by 2024.

Tempest and FCAS will be equipped with cutting-edge technologies that are currently being developed by the industry partners to meet the capability requirements of future conflicts and be operational in the mid-2030s. Among them, we can find Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and autonomous systems that will pioneer human-AI teaming, a new Multi-Function Radar Frequency System technology that will reportedly collect and process 10’000 times more data than existing systems, a revolutionary “wearable cockpit” powered by Augmented and Virtual Reality systems projected inside the pilot’s helmet, new advanced engine technologies and a “loyal wingman”, currently being developed as the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) concept.

Last year, the UK, Italy and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project in  a major international endeavour. Together the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximising their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

The Tempest programme is currently among the priorities of the three governments, which are now working to obtain a widespread industry participation to bring the best expertise to work on the many technology demonstrations currently in progress, while looking at the Project Arrangement and the beginning of the Full Development phase from 2025. Tempest is expected to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon (in Italy and UK) and the Saab Gripen (in Sweden).

Earlier this year, it was reported that the UK was looking at Japan to join the Tempest FCAS program and this was later confirmed by the MoD, acknowledging that important cooperative opportunities with Japan were being explored. Last week, the UK Defence Secretary visited Tokyo and agreed with Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi to accelerate discussions between the UK and Japan on developing sub-systems for a Future Combat Air System, including intensifying efforts to explore working together on power and propulsion systems.

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Tempest FCAS Mock-Up Shown For The First Time With Italian Low-Visibility Roundels

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The Tempest mockup with both the Italian Air Force and the Royal Air Force roundels at BAE Systems’ facility in Warton. (Screenshot cropped from the British Prime Minister’s video)

The images of the Tempest FCAS with the roundel surfaced online after the British Prime Minister’s visit to BAE Systems’ facility in Warton.

Last week, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited BAE Systems’ facility in Warton, where he toured the Factory of the Future that the company created and talked about the recent Integrated Defence Review. BAE created this Factory of the Future as a first-of-its-kind, fully connected, digital factory with the latest state of the art Industry 4.0 technologies to demonstrate how military aircraft (including the Tempest FCAS) could be built in the future.

According to Johnson, this is a “big moment” for the defence industry and the government had to make some tough and expensive decisions to invest in 21st century technology and modernize the armed forces to make them more lethal and effective around the world, while also becoming more valuable to UK’s allies and more deterring to the adversaries.

Among the 21st century technologies that the government is investing in there is the Tempest Future Combat Air System, the  6th generation fighter aircraft which will replace the Eurofighter Typhoon (in Italy and UK) and the Saab Gripen (in Sweden). Not much can be found about Tempest in the “Defence in a competitive age” report that followed the Integrated Review, here is an excerpt:

We are investing now to launch the next phase of the FCAS Acquisition Programme to design and deliver the Tempest Concept: innovative systems of optionally-crewed and autonomous systems to preserve our operational advantage long into the future. Tempest will exploit our unique industrial base to create a 6th generation combat air enterprise centred in the UK. This fully digital enterprise will transform delivery, achieving pace and lowering cost and disrupting traditional approaches to defence procurement.

As we already reported, the UK, Italy and Sweden signed a trilateral Future Combat Air System Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding on Dec. 21, 2020, which covers the cooperation for research, development and joint concepting of Tempest. The Tempest programme is currently among the priorities of the three governments, which are now working to obtain a widespread industry participation to bring the best expertise to work on the project. There were reports also about the UK looking at Japan to join the Tempest FCAS program and this was also confirmed in the MoD’s report:

We are deepening FCAS partnering with Italy and Sweden through an international Concept and Assessment Phase beginning this year and are exploring important cooperative opportunities with Japan. Combat Air will remain a key pillar of the UK’s global approach as we reinforce interoperability and cooperation with the US and strengthen our relationships with the Typhoon consortium in Europe and other like-minded nations.

Having said that, the most interesting thing that we noticed in the few photos and the short video release after the visit is the Tempest FCAS mockup. To be more specific, it is a particular from the mockup, as the aircraft was seen for the first time with an Italian Air Force low-visibility roundels beside the RAF ones, the same that were applied also on the Italian F-35s. This is a further confirmation of the Italian involvement in the program, even if it is not much advertised at home.

Strange enough, we can’t help but notice though that the Swedish Air Force roundels are missing. That is even more strange if we consider that Michael Christie, director of FCAS at BAE Systems, recently said that a collaborative working definition project concluded with Sweden and Saab in 2020 “was extremely successful”.

As reported by FlightGlobal, Christie said that the Tempest programme is on track to enter its concept and assessment phase later this year, with a contract expected by the summer. Based on the results of the research done during the initial technology development phase, the next phase will define the systems that will be part of FCAS, as multiple configurations are still being considered while looking to find the right balance between the various components.

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Italy, United Kingdom And Sweden Sign Tempest FCAS Cooperation Memorandum Of Understanding

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A rendering of the Tempest sixth-generation fighter aircraft. (Image credit: Royal Air Force/Team Tempest)

The three countries agreed to an equal cooperation for research, development and joint concepting of the Tempest FCAS ahead of the Project Arrangement and Full Development phase from 2025.

The Italian Minister of Defense Lorenzo Guerini, the British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and the Swedish Minister for Defence Peter Hultkvist signed a trilateral Future Combat Air System Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding on Dec. 21, 2020. The news was disclosed by the Italian Government only few days ago. This MoU arrived about a year after Italy officially joined the other two countries to develop Tempest.

This Memorandum of Understanding covers the cooperation for research, development and joint concepting of the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft which will replace the Eurofighter Typhoon (in Italy and UK) and the Saab Gripen (in Sweden). The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

The Tempest programme is currently among the priorities of the three governments, which are now working to obtain a widespread industry participation to bring the best expertise to work on the many technology demonstrations currently in progress, while looking at the Project Arrangement and the beginning of the Full Development phase from 2025.

Similarly to the UK, the Italian government is starting a “Typhoon to Tempest transition”, with technologies developed for the Tempest being used also to upgrade the Typhoon. As a matter of fact, the latest Italian Defense Policy Document for 2020-2022 (Documento Programmatico della Difesa 2020-2022) mentions the first funds for the new aircraft among the funds assigned to the Typhoon fleet upgrade. This was also confirmed by the Minister of Defence during a recent parliamentary hearing, however the Tempest’s funds have not been officially allotted yet.

The Italian Ministry of Defence, in the press release, noted that Tempest will be a determining factor for the military and industrial capabilities at both the European and global levels. Because of this, there is also a call to evaluate a future integration with the other FCAS programme of France, Germany and Spain, in order to avoid the risk of competition between European groups, which would not be sustainable and become an advantage for other unspecified regional actors in the process of developing similar technologies, and to make the European product more competitive at the global level.

A similar concept was mentioned this summer also by Airbus Defense and Space CEO Dirk Hoke, who said that “maintaining two programs in Europe could be a “bad solution” for both the UK and the European Union, repeating the 1990s error of Europe having three combat aircraft developments in parallel: Eurofighter, Gripen and Rafale”, according to Aviation Week. The UK, however, dismissed these comments saying that their military strategy is different from France and Germany’s and the requirements of Tempest and FCAS are completely different, while Italy and Sweden have aligned views and similar needs to the UK’s. Moreover, they say that having two programs in Europe maintains “a degree of competitive pressure on our industries” without creating a monopoly on the supply of fighter aircraft.

The mock-up of the Tempest Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative that was unveiled in 2018. (Photo: BAE Systems)

On the contrary, the UK is looking for global partners to join Tempest, one of which was Japan with its F-X program. The F-X is meant to replace the F-2, Japan’s multirole fighter based on the F-16, with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as main contractor and Lockheed Martin recently chosen as foreign partner. Other candidates were Boeing and BAE Systems. However, there is still space for cooperation as unspecified companies from the UK and the US will participate in propulsion and avionics development.

Talking about propulsion and avionics, we recently reported about the technologies in these fields that are being developed for Tempest:

Leonardo, which is the project lead for electronics, is developing a new radar technology called Multi-Function Radar Frequency System. The new sensor will reportedly collect and process 10’000 times more data than existing systems, or “equivalent to the internet traffic of a large city every second”, providing the operators with a clear view of the battlespace and of potential targets. According to the company, complete sub-systems have already been built and successfully tested, paving the way eventually to future airborne testing.

BAE Systems if working on another revolutionary concept, the “wearable cockpit”. In this case, the cockpit as we know it, full of switches, gauges and screens, becomes completely digital and all physical controls are replaced by Augmented and Virtual Reality systems. The new cockpit would be projected inside the pilot’s helmet and completely customizable according to the pilot’s preference and mission’s needs.

As human-AI teaming, a virtual copilot is being developed to interact with the pilot and provide support during the flight. “Psycho-physiological” technologies are also being trialed to study the operator’s physical and cognitive processes to better understand increasing exertion, stress, workload and fatigue. According to the company, some of these technologies are being tested controlled test flight conditions aboard the Typhoon to inform further development. MBDA UK is also working on the wearable cockpit concept to integrate weapons systems information and operations.

Rolls-Royce is working on the advanced combustion system technology that will power Tempest. The next-generation system is being designed to be hotter than previous ones to increase the efficiency of the engine, its range and speed, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Together with the higher-temperature combustion, there will be a new thermal management system that will use the turbine as a heat sink to recycle thermal energy, removing the need for overboard venting and improving the efficiency, and an increased electrical power production, reportedly in the order of one megawatt, that will be used to power all the aircraft’s subsystems.

This follows the assessment by Rolls Royce that future fighter aircraft will have unprecedented levels of electrical power demand and thermal load that need to be managed accordingly to maintain the airframe’s low observability. Being more specific, the company stated that they will integrate an Electrical Embedded Starter Generator that will function both as an APU and as an electrical generator after the engine is spooled up.

New Images Of The Tempest Sixth-Generation Aircraft Revealed During UK Industry Engagement Event

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One of the new renderings of the Tempest sixth-generation fighter aircraft. (Image credit: Royal Air Force)

Development for the new Tempest sixth-generation fighter is moving on with some revolutionary concepts.

Team Tempest and the Royal Air Force recently held a virtual event to provide an update about the development opportunities of the new sixth generation aircraft to industry and government representatives from Northern Ireland, the first of a series of events to engage with industries across the UK. Within the press release there is also some new renderings of the aircraft which, we have to note, is not in its final shape as it’s being designed “from the inside out” and the airframe’s exterior design may change to reflect changes in the internal systems.

According to the press release, “Delegates heard from Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston and other RAF senior leaders who highlighted how Team Tempest is taking a revolutionary approach to partnership, engaging with a wide range of leading companies, SMEs and academia to bring leading innovators into the endeavour and ensure the UK remains at the leading edge of Combat Air systems development. The RAF Capability leadership team highlighted updates in emerging strategy and identified examples of innovation and future opportunities. Key members from the Team Tempest industry partner community also provided attendees with updates on the programme and explained how Tempest is working in radical ways to develop world-leading capability, with a focus on affordability and efficiency.”

Team Tempest is currently made of the core industry partners BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo UK and MBDA UK, which were joined last year by Leonardo Italy, Elettronica, Avio Aero, MBDA Italy, Saab and GKN Aerospace Sweden and, more recently, by Thales UK, Bombardier Belfast, Collins Aerospace, GE Aviation UK, GKN Aerospace, Martin Baker and QinetiQ. A widespread industry participation is considered essential for the programme to bring the best expertise to work on the more than 60 technology demonstrations which are currently in progress.

Another rendering of the Tempest sixth-generation fighter aircraft followed by another Tempest and unmanned assets. (Image: Royal Air Force)

According to a statement shared by the UK Ministry of Defence and the core industry partners, “Tempest is one of the UK’s most ambitious technological endeavours and designed to deliver a highly advanced, adaptable combat air system to come into service from the mid-2030s. This next generation combat aircraft, which forms part of a wider combat air system, will exploit new technologies as they evolve to respond to the changing nature of the battlespace, addressing increasingly high-tech and complex threats and conflict.”

Back in October, engineers working on the project revealed some of the highly innovative systems that are being developed for Tempest as part of the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI) programme. Here is what has been disclosed to the public so far.

Leonardo, which is the project lead for electronics, is developing a new radar technology called Multi-Function Radar Frequency System. The new sensor will reportedly collect and process 10’000 times more data than existing systems, or “equivalent to the internet traffic of a large city every second”, providing the operators with a clear view of the battlespace and of potential targets. According to the company, complete sub-systems have already been built and successfully tested, paving the way eventually to future airborne testing.

BAE Systems if working on another revolutionary concept, the “wearable cockpit”. In this case, the cockpit as we know it, full of switches, gauges and screens, becomes completely digital and all physical controls are replaced by Augmented and Virtual Reality systems. The new cockpit would be projected inside the pilot’s helmet and completely customizable according to the pilot’s preference and mission’s needs.

Infographic about the future cockpit research and the wearable cockpit. (Image: BAE Systems)

As human-AI teaming, a virtual copilot is being developed to interact with the pilot and provide support during the flight. “Psycho-physiological” technologies are also being trialed to study the operator’s physical and cognitive processes to better understand increasing exertion, stress, workload and fatigue. According to the company, some of these technologies are being tested controlled test flight conditions aboard the Typhoon to inform further development. MBDA UK is also working on the wearable cockpit concept to integrate weapons systems information and operations.

Rolls-Royce is working on the advanced combustion system technology that will power Tempest. The next-generation system is being designed to be hotter than previous ones to increase the efficiency of the engine, its range and speed, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Together with the higher-temperature combustion, there will be a new thermal management system that will use the turbine as a heat sink to recycle thermal energy, removing the need for overboard venting and improving the efficiency, and an increased electrical power production, reportedly in the order of one megawatt, that will be used to power all the aircraft’s subsystems.

This follows the assessment by Rolls Royce that future fighter aircraft will have unprecedented levels of electrical power demand and thermal load that need to be managed accordingly to maintain the airframe’s low observability. Being more specific, the company stated that they will integrate an Electrical Embedded Starter Generator that will function both as an APU and as an electrical generator after the engine is spooled up.

Infographic about the advanced power and propulsion system being developed for Tempest. (Image: Rolls Royce)

The Tempest is expected to have also his own loyal wingman, currently being developed as the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) concept. According to the MoD, LANCA will offer “increased protection, survivability and information for the manned aircraft – and could even provide an unmanned combat air ‘fleet’ in the future.” A demonstration project, called “Moquito” and comparable to the Skyborg program of the U.S. Air Force, is currently in its first phase of evaluation.

Three teams, Boeing Defence UK, Team Avenger (led by Blue Bear Systems Research), and Team Blackdawn (Callen-Lenz, Bombardier Belfast and Northrop Grumman UK), submitted designs for the flight demonstrations phase, which could begin in 2022-2023, after two finalists are selected during second phase of evaluation. LANCA will reportedly be a transonic aircraft costing one-tenth of a fighter aircraft, able to employ multi-role sensors, Electronic Warfare suites and both air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.

The unmanned aircraft project, led by the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, originated in 2015, three years before the Tempest announcement. While a timeline for its entry into service has not been disclosed, the LANCA may be first deployed alongside the Typhoon and the F-35, before the entry into service of the new Tempest in 2035.

Tempest flying with the LANCA unmanned assets. (Image: Royal Air Force)

Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft

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A detail of the graphic for the USAF 73rd birthday. (Courtesy Graphic via DVIDS)

The Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs has recently published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service an interesting graphic for the Air Force’s 73rd birthday. What catches immediately the eye is that the graphic features prominently, in the center and in the background, an unknown new aircraft that has not been confirmed as real or fictional.

The graphic, originally uploaded to the DVIDS website on Sept. 8, 2020, has started making the rounds today, after (a crop of) it was published by the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, to celebrate the Anniversary:

The timing is really interesting, as this graphic, comes just few days after the announcement by Dr. Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, that the Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown at least one full-scale prototype of a new generation fighter aircraft.

The 73rd Anniversary Graphic. (Courtesy Graphic by Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs)

Having considered this, the aircraft in the image could be completely fictional or it could be a hint at the design that was chosen for the first prototype build for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

Even if a graphic motive has been superimposed over the aircraft, making it difficult to discern some of the details, the design looks based on a unique triangular shape from the nose to the tail, with an angle of about 50° at the nose. If correct, this feature already differentiates this design from the concept proposed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the NGAD program. However, the “masking graphic” could hide a more classic design with two different angles, one for the front and one for the wings, that could be exposed by a darker coloration of the aircraft and another grey “No Step” area inside the aircraft perimeter.

The next generation aircraft has a cockpit, sign of the aircraft being manned or optionally manned. Two engines are positioned beside the dorsal spine, with exhaust nozzles similar to the ones found on the YF-23, with the lower surface longer than the upper one to mask the engine’s infrared signature from below. We can’t see any kind of tail planes, hence the aircraft is based on the flying wing concept. The absence of vertical tail planes could be dictated by a further reduction of the Radar Cross Section, especially from the sides. An air-to-air refueling receptacle is also present on the dorsal spine.

BTW, the shape vaguely reminds the one of the mysterious aircraft spotted in the U.S. in 2014:

The two mysterious aircraft spotted over Texas and Kansas in 2014 compared to the aircraft in the 2020 rendering (Image credit: The Aviationist using also Sammamishman composite based on Muskett and Templin shots)

Let’s keep in mind that all of this could just be speculation, at least until the first photos of the NGAD demonstrator will be available to the public because, as we said earlier, the aircraft in the graphic could be entirely fictional.

Here are the only verified info actually available about the demonstrator as written in the article published by The Aviationist on Sept. 15, 2020:

The existence of the demonstrator was first confirmed by Dr. Roper to reporter Valerie Insinna of Defense News during the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference 2020: “We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

While the details about the aircraft are still classified, including its appearance, the first new fighter jet designed and flown in 20 years, since the Joint Strike Fighter competition between the X-32 and X-35, was designed using advanced Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) techniques and Digital Twin concepts to build and test a virtual version of the aircraft, before moving to physically build and fly the prototype.

[…]

According to Defense News, Dr. Roper declined to comment on the number of prototypes, the manufacturer and the timing of development and first flight, the aircraft’s mission, unmanned or optionally manned capabilities, low observability and  supersonic or hypersonic speeds.

Moreover, we have already seen some nice graphics showcasing futuristic aircraft in posters celebrating the Air Force’s birthday. In 2017, one of such posters, created as part of a series of posters celebrating the lead up to the Air Forces 70th birthday, featured the proposed successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, the unmanned, hypersonic SR-72, that “would travel at twice the speed of the SR-71, penetrating defended airspace and striking a target before being detected.”

The SR-72 poster published in September 2017 ahead of the Air Force’s 70th birthday (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

Easter Egg?

Update 21.30 GMT, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

After publishing the first version of this story, we have started receiving suggestions and comments from our readers. One in particular is worth a mention. Anastasis Tsilas noticed the story published by the U.S. Air Force on Instagram. The story has another hint whose shape *might* be hidden also in the 73rd birthday graphic.

The shape in the Instagram story immediately reminded us about the original graphic and a possible shape that appears to be hidden below the main one. Here it is.

A next generation aircraft shape similar to the one in the USAF Instagram story can be found in the 73rd Anniversary graphic. (Image credit: The Aviationist).

What is more, this shape now appears to be strikingly similar to the one of the 6th gen. concept Northrop Grumman released in 2016:

Northrop Grumman 6th Gen. fighter as shown in a commercial released in 2016.

Also the AFRL 2030 video had something similar:

However, at the same time, as suggested by our reader Zackary Goldberg, most of the “hidden” aircraft in the original graphic seems to be a manipulated version of a render published in 2017 (in particular, the render at the bottom of the page) by artist Rodrigo Avella.

He also created an image to show how the concepts compare:

There a certain resemblance between the somehow hidden aircraft in the 73rd birthday graphic and the concept by artist Rodrigo Avella.(Image credit: Zackary Goldberg)
Interestingly, Avella’s models have been used by the Air Force before. His “FX Drone” model was used to represent Loyal Wingman in the “Air Force 2030 – Call to Action” video published in 2018, embedded above.
Therefore, in the end, the 73rd graphics could have simply used a stylized, fictional aircraft that has nothing to do with the real thing; could be teasing an existing type; or could just be part of a deception operation. Who knows? Still, interesting.