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Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet

The Air Force on Tuesday revealed that it has secretly built and flown a prototype of its next-generation fighter jet, according to the service's top acquisition official.

The jet, built as part of the Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, was first disclosed to Defense News on Monday.

Air Force acquisition head Will Roper told the outlet that the service could now move the jet into production "pretty fast."

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"We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before," he said in an interview.

Roper then publicly spoke on the jet's existence on Tuesday at an Air Force Association (AFA) virtual conference, telling watchers that "the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world." 

He added that the program "right now is designing, assembling, testing in the digital world, exploring things that would have cost time and money to wait for physical world results." 

The announcement is significant, as this would mark the Air Force's sixth-generation aircraft, a full-scale version of which was not expected for years.

The test flight also comes 20 years after the service first similarly demonstrated an experimental fighter jet for the fifth-generation F-35. 

As the NGAD program is classified, little more is known of the secretive jet. Roper would not give Defense News or the AFA event further details on aircraft, including which company or companies built the prototype, how many were flown, and when or where any flight occurred.  

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He also would not say anything about the jet's design, what it would be used for, how many would be bought or the expected cost. 

The Air Force did request a little more than $1 billion for the program in its fiscal 2021 budget proposal to Congress, to be ramped up to a more than $6 billion ask total between fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2025. 

The announcement may also mark a turning point in how the military develops and buys new weapons, a process that was once thought to require large work facilities and expensive equipment and tools.  

That line of production has brought criticism to the Pentagon, most recently in the Lockheed Martin-made F-35, which lawmakers have long bashed for its cost overruns and numerous mechanical hiccups.  

The NGAD, in contrast, was first designed and tested digitally before it was physically built.