The US Fifth-Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) will take its first flight in October at Dugway Proving Ground, UT, following nearly flawless completion of ground-based testing in September.

Delayed by several months due to pandemic-inspired travel restrictions, the battery of ground tests was completed on 18 September at Michael Army Airfield. Executed by an integrated team of DoD and contractor personnel, the testing verified complete aircraft control, safety procedures and key performance milestones for take-off and landing. The single prototype executed 24 taxi test events (15 low-speed and nine high-speed) in just six days, with no interruptions or major problems.

The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) sponsors 5GAT, a full-scale, low-observable air vehicle that represents, more accurately than anything else available, the fifth-generation fighter aircraft threats US forces could face. The low-cost drone is designed to enable air-to-air and surface-to-air platform and weapons test and evaluation, pilot and ground-force training, and the development of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) against fifth-generation threats.

To determine whether a system really is combat-credible, we must test it under realistic conditions. That includes putting it up against a realistic threat […] Right now, we lack a test platform that truly represents fifth-generation air capabilities. Filling that gap as soon as possible is absolutely essential to both testing and training,” explained Robert Behler, Director Operational Test and Evaluation.

Prime contractor Sierra Technical Services has taken an innovative approach to building 5GAT, constructing the airframe from composites using soft tooling to reduce cost. Subcontractors include Fast Optimal Engineering, which designed major subsystem solutions, including flight control actuation, electrical power, hydraulics, landing gear and steering; and 5D Systems, responsible for developing the complex suite of software. 5GAT uses engines and other elements harvested from decommissioned military aircraft, as well as an existing US Army ground-based aircraft control system.

"With 5GAT, we've reinvented the typical acquisition process, and have aggressively used innovative programme management and contracting processes to accelerate new capability development and ensure cost savings […] We pulled in expertise from ‘greybeards,' both industry and military, and the vision of our next generation of pilots, US Air Force Academy cadets. We gave STS the freedom to explore cutting-edge design and manufacturing techniques, and got an even bigger bang for the taxpayer buck by recycling government-owned assets,” stated Michael Crisp, DOT&E's Deputy Director for Air Warfare.

Flight testing will begin in late October. Initial flight test objectives include demonstrating flight characteristics, performance of various subsystems and the aircraft's auto-take-off and auto-landing functionality. Subsequent flight tests will progressively expand the aircraft's flight envelope in altitude, speed and greater G-force loading.

When this unique prototype takes to the air in a few days, we will have gone from a basic concept to first flight in less than three-and-a-half years. That includes periods when the programme slowed dramatically due to funding issues and the recent COVID-related delays,” Crisp, a retired naval aviator, observed. “I think 5GAT shows the power, creativity and flexibility that a small but diverse team with few constraints can produce — all to the benefit of the warfighter.”

5GAT in one of its taxi test events in September. (Photo: US DoD)

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