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A New U.S. Stealth Fighter: Do We Really Need A ‘Manhattan Project’?

U.S. Stealth Fighter
Image: Creative Commons.

A U.S. Air Force general wants the service to jump through all hurdles and commit the nation’s resources and full attention to developing a sixth-generation fighter plane. Details have yet to emerge about the program as the Air Force is keeping things secret. But a next-generation prototype reportedly flew at least a year ago. The reasoning behind the new airplane is that China and Russia are expected to roll out a sixth-generation fighter in the future.

Treat This Like the Manhattan Project?

Air Force General Mark Kelly, leader of the Air Combat Command, is the main cheerleader for the next-generation fighter. He told a conference in September that the United States needs to treat this new airplane like it did the Manhattan Project for the atomic bomb development in World War Two.

Numerous countries are working on next-generation fighter planes. The technology behind these aircraft is still immature and will likely not be ready until 2030. But Kelly does not want to finish in second or third place behind Russia and China.

New and Unproven Technologies

The new program for the Air Force dream jet is called the Next-Generation Air Dominance project. There could be two new models to choose from. Sixth-generation airplanes have mysterious and secretive attributes, and analysts have to speculate on the specifications of these airplanes. But the new technologies could be comprised of the use of artificial intelligence situational awareness in the cockpit, cyber defense for the airplane, an unmanned remote-control capability, improved stealth capabilities, and use of offensive and defensive lasers. Kelly shared no details on the Next-Generation Air Dominance project, but he wants more money from Congress and a quicker timeline for production.

Fix the Other Existing Fighters First

Put this in the “You’ve got to be kidding” file. After all the money spent on the F-22, the Air Force wants a new airplane? And that leaves cost over-runs, schedule delays, maintenance problems, crashes, forced landings, and a myriad of other concerns that the airplane has. It’s hard to believe the Air Force wants to go through this again when it needs to solve the problems of the F-22 first.

What about pilots? Is the Air Force training its pilots to handle delicate and sensitive airplanes or is the need for unmanned systems piloting a priority? Are there enough skilled pilots in the Air Force for manned flights for sixth-generation fighters?

I am skeptical about the Next-Generation Air Dominance program. General Kelly appears overly optimistic. Congress will have to be an intense watchdog over this project because generals are talking it up as a requirement instead of an option. The technology is unproven and immature. There is no price tag at this point. There is also no clear strategy behind the airplane, except for “keeping up” with our rivals. How will it be used? What will the aerial tactics be? How long will it be in test and evaluation? It looks like the next-generation fighter is more imaginative and aspirational then a reality, but the Pentagon and Congress will likely throw good money after bad again.

1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Don DeVan

    October 17, 2021 at 8:59 am

    We already have it designed and built. It’s Northrop’s YF-23. The F-22 was chosen because of superior marketing, not superior performance. Pull the YF out of moth balls, retrofit it with frikin lasers, and AI and there ya go. A 6 gen at warp speed!

  2. Dan

    October 17, 2021 at 4:44 pm

    The YF-23 first flew on 27 August, 1990; the YF-22 a bit later.

    The technology for both planes was developed in the 1980s.

    As much as I love the YF-23 — for very personal reasons — the truth is that both aircraft are now 35 years old.

  3. Paul

    October 17, 2021 at 5:29 pm

    GEN Kelly: a fighter armed with laser beams.
    Doctor Evil: a shark armed with freakin laser beams.

    Doe GEN Kelly have a mini-me?

  4. David E Woodard

    October 18, 2021 at 12:56 am

    As a young teenager I designed a sixth generation, possibly a seventh generation fighter, the design has a much smaller radar cross section and will out perform anything on the planet now, with my time in the USMC I was able to confirm the possibility, but who am I but a redneck country plow boy, LoL, if we let China get ahead of us it will be difficult and more costly to catch up, but like I said, who am I and what do I know, LoL

  5. Lt.col ret

    October 18, 2021 at 4:41 am

    How about the current leadership get canned so we can concentrate pn great military forces vs white rage and crt crap also toss some dang money in the till for off books project and make it in america with americans only so china doesnt cheat off us

  6. Darren Robertson

    October 18, 2021 at 10:40 am

    My point is the F-22 has been over deployed as it is. And the fleet is too small. No sense in pouring money in that direction.

  7. Ronald Harvey

    October 18, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Good $ or bad, we simply can not let anyone else even catch up to us let alone pass our capabilities. We lack fighters already so ya, spend the $$ and maintain air dominance so we can maintain our nations security…

  8. Simple Horn

    October 18, 2021 at 11:04 am

    The F22 is not a new airplane. Combat versions started building in 1996, meaning the tech was frozen no later than 1993 or 1994. We’ve made small improvements to the insides, but this is already old tech, not much newer than F15Cs (though newer than the retired F15As).

    It was expensive on a per-plane calculation mainly because we only bought 185 operational versions thanks first to SecDef Dick Cheney for the 1990s “peace dividend” that initially chopped it from the F15-replacement numbers of over 700 down to 300. The 1990s had no urgency to build it fast, so we didn’t finish building even the small number till 2011. Keep the manufacturing line open for 15 years and only build 185? You will have huge costs just on that infrastructure aspect that has nothing to do with real costs of the individual plane. Now we are building new F15s just to make up for the tiny number of F22s, and accepting the lesser plane because it’s manufacturing line is still open.

    We’ve needed an F22 replacement for at least 10 years now. Once it became obvious that peer-challenges were re-emerging from Russia and a new one from China, it became urgent. That was already a while back. Russia was an obvious and immediate threat starting in 2014. Now, 7 years later, we better be well along in testing or hundred of people utterly failed at their jobs, including three Presidents. I remember reading that Obama was the one that started serious work on the B21, Ohio replacement, and Virginia replacement. At least the B21 is close to being finished.

  9. Hossley Daniel

    October 18, 2021 at 11:17 am

    I believe the author has confused the F22 with the F-35.

  10. Michael Byrd=Hero,Babbit=DeadSult

    October 18, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Once again USAF is loading up an airplane that should just replace both the F-22 and pre EX variant F-15s with fantasy capabilities like the Wunderwaffle-35.

    At least the Navy has their heads on straight.

  11. Doug Mayfield

    October 18, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    I am certainly not any kind of expert on military technology but when I read as I did today that China has tested a hypersonic missile (which, duh, ‘caught the US intelligence community by surprise’), perhaps the ‘Manhattan Project’ approach should be devoted to developing such a capacity for America. After all, having a 6th generation fighter won’t mean a damn if they are all destroyed on the ground by Chinese and Russian nukes delivered hypersonically.

  12. Simple Horn

    October 18, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    Don’t confuse the purpose of different aircraft designs. The F35 Panther has already and extremely successfully replaced the F117 and AV8B, and will soon be a credible A6 replacement and Growler augmentee.

    Further, the F35C added modern stealth strike where none existed before. Far stealthier and infinitely more capable than the F117, now we have it on each carrier that can go anywhere rather than tied to existing airfields. Further, the F35B added this to anything with a flat space big enough. Stealth strike from amphibious ships? Game changer

  13. dave

    October 18, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    We dont have a choice, if we dont want to be left behind. China has already surpassed the capability’s of the F22 and F35 and the missiles they carry.

    The F22 is being retired soon regardless if we like it or not, they have been run hard.

    The F35 is not up to the job and the F15 is to old.

    This article strikes me as a weak pitch to delay the program and funnel more money to whomever sponsored it. Probably someone making hand over fist $$$ on the F35.

  14. Riceball

    October 19, 2021 at 6:10 am

    The author loses credibility when he can’t distinguish between the F-22 and the F-35. Where are “all the problems” of the F-22?

  15. TermLimits

    October 19, 2021 at 12:43 pm

    What causes these decisions to be somewhat absurd is the US designs new, leading edge equipment, in secrecy, rolls it out and within 3-5 years the Chinese roll out a remarkably similar plane.
    So the question is, should the US wait on China to develop the next gen, then be prepared to copy it and add in some improvements?
    Imagine how much R&D China saves by copying our designs, and I’m certain they steal a fair amount of the design documents ongoing. So maybe the US and Europe need to try the same.

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