LOS ANGELES — Northrop Grumman has stood up a pair of teams dedicated to developing a "sixth-generation" fighter for both the Navy and Air Force, years before the services intend to issue requests for information on potential replacements for current aircraft.
It's an aggressive move that Tom Vice, president of Northrop's aerospace division, hopes will pay off in a big way for his company.
"Northrop Grumman will compete for the next generation fighter," Vice flatly declared, noting that there is a program manager already leading a team of Northrop staffers on the program.
When asked whether he envisioned Northrop acting as a prime contractor on a future fighter, he added "of course."
Vice's comments were made during a trip to Northrop facilities in California, arranged and paid for by the company.
Both the Air Force and Navy have begun preliminary planning for what is referred to as next-generation air dominance, or "sixth-generation" fighters. After working together on the F-35 joint strike fighter, the two services are looking at procuring their own respective jets.
The Navy's program is dubbed F/A-XX, while the Air Force's effort is known as F-X. In September, Col. Tom Coglitore, Air Superiority Core Function Team chief at Air Combat Command, told Defense News he wants to see Milestone A acquisition activity in early fiscal 2018.
A spokesman for Northrop confirmed that there are individual teams focused on each of the service requirements.
Vice indicated that Northrop is looking at a supersonic, tailless airplane design as a potential solution, something he noted no one has ever done before.
"You don't see any supersonic airplanes today without tails," Vice said. "Why? It's really hard. But if you think about new ways to do advanced computing, very high speed processing, new materials – that's why the research we do is so important, so we can build what could likely be the next-generation fighter in 20 years. It's going to require that kind of technology, because to build that airplane is going to be really, really hard."
He also hinted that making a system optionally manned would be relatively easy for the company.
While Vice may be confident in his program, outside analysts have questioned whether Northrop can survive long-term as an attack airframe manufacturer, especially if it loses out on the Air Force's Long Range Strike-Bomber program.
That program is expected to award a contract to either Northrop or its competitor, a team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, in late spring or early summer.
UPDATED 1/21/15: This story was updated to clarify that there are two Northrop teams working individually on the Navy and Air Force programs.