The U.S. Air Force says its next-generation fighter jet will feature a brand-new capability no existing fighter has: the ability to quickly change the onboard software that drives the plane’s hardware. That means Next-Generation Air Dominance’s (NGAD) computer system will allow the aircraft to update the software that controls the hardware, allowing the plane to quickly squash software bugs or unlock new capabilities while in the air.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown disclosed the news last week during a roundtable event on the secret new fighter jet, as first reported by Breaking Defense. Brown told reporters that the service’s NGAD fighter separates its flight-control software from the rest of the aircraft computer system—including software that controls communications and networking, radar, electronic warfare, the control of new weapons, and so on.
The NGAD fighter is a new fighter concept set to replace the F-22 Raptor and other Air Force fighters. A tech demonstrator has already flown, though the aircraft itself won’t enter service in significant numbers until the early 2030s. The NGAD program will consist of both crewed and uncrewed aircraft teamed together to allow the Air Force to attain air dominance in any future theater of war.
Current fighters, Brown explained, run all of the software on one main computer system. Any time a significant software upgrade is performed, the Air Force and its defense contractors must run flight tests to ensure that the upgrade does not accidentally impede the aircraft’s flight controls, perhaps introducing an unwitting pilot to a nasty surprise.