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NGAD 6th Generation Stealth Fighter: Completely Unaffordable?

NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.

Will price kill the NGAD program? Wars have always been expensive to fight. But the costs of many 21st century platforms run exponentially higher – so much so that some U.S. lawmakers routinely ask whether the weapons are worth the price. The per-unit cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II has long been one focus of debate. Supporters of the system tout the aircraft’s advanced capabilities. Its detractors counter that there are more affordable alternatives.

Incredibly Effective and Very Expensive

Such a debate is already starting to snare the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance future fighter program, or NGAD, which is on track to become the most expensive aircraft program in history. The fighter could serve as the centerpiece of a family of systems that eventually succeeds the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. But each of the semi-autonomous aircraft could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

During a House Armed Services Committee last week, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall found himself in the hot seat as lawmakers questioned him about the total cost of the aircraft, which is still under development. Kendall couldn’t specify the exact cost of an individual aircraft, but he did say it could reach multiple hundreds of millions of dollars. It is likely to cost at least twice as much as the F-35, which had a price tag of around $80 million each.

“This is a number that’s going to get your attention,” Kendall said. “It’s going to be an expensive airplane.”

Kendall was quick to note that the NGAD would be an “incredibly effective” aircraft, though it would need to be accompanied by other, less expensive platforms that could extend its reach in combat. Those platforms would likely include a team of autonomous drones dubbed loyal wingmen.

The Air Force has invested more than $2.5 billion in the NGAD program since 2018, and that number is likely to climb to at least $9 billion by 2026.

More Than an Aircraft

The still-evolving sixth-generation system is more than just an advanced aircraft. The NGAD, as noted, is a family of systems that are being developed to collaboratively gain air dominance in combat. The systems might include at least one crewed aircraft along with an undisclosed number of non-crewed drones or other aircraft. The aircraft will be further complemented with optionally crewed platforms, missiles, pods, and off-board capabilities.

Some of the flying escorts might be equipped with additional sensors or more weapons, while others might provide electronic or ground-attack capabilities. This is meant to provide greater agility and capability to the NGAD, allowing the various systems to break through enemy defenses and maintain air superiority in a future battlespace.


NGAD artist rendering. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The NGAD program was initiated in the early 2010s to develop an air superiority system for the 2030s. As it evolved, it moved away from a single aircraft, and toward a suite of systems. The program also aims to develop several key technologies in areas that include propulsion; stealth; advanced weapons; digital design, including CAD-based engineering; and thermal management of aircraft signature.

Holding Costs Down

Efforts have been made to hold sustainment costs down in the long term, Kendall told lawmakers last week. That was being done by incorporating modular designs and interfaces already in use by the U.S. military, in order to ensure ease of upgrades and maintenance. Such efforts could also lead to competition within the defense industrial base sector, which could further drive down costs.

“It’s worth the time and the effort in the earlier phases of a program like NGAD to get those things right because you’re going to pay for what you did much later in sustainment, with much bigger dollars,” Kendall said. “And from what I’ve seen of the NGAD program so far, that approach has been taken.”

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.



  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 2, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Yes, that is too much for the combat benefits. 100 cheap drones would have 10+ times the combat power for the same price.

  2. Michael Byrd killed a terrorist slut

    May 2, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    Having two separate aircraft for the Navy and USAF will be better in the long run. The F-22 was the only real success story for the flyboys since the 90s. The Navy will have a successor to the F-14 while the latrine queens will end up with another Starfighter.

  3. Andrew M Winter

    May 3, 2022 at 10:27 am

    Unafordable… ppffffttt

    Just look at these charts from 2015. This is an answer to a Quora Question about the possibility of a World War III. Understand what I am saying that this massive Federal Spending really is the un-noticed, tiny fraction of the surplus wealth of the U.S. tax base.

    No one who draws a paycheck pays any attention to the deductions for taxes Social Security or Medicare. They do not notice it’s missing folks.

    It isn’t a question of “can’t” afford it. It’s just a question of the will to do so. Heck if Social Media didn’t get wind of it you could skim off the top of either Social Security or Medicare and double the US military budget and no one on the street would ever even notice it.

    • A. Damon

      May 4, 2022 at 9:20 pm

      Andrew M Winter, There was one heck of a lot of change since the year 2015, and all within the same paradigm or ideology.
      Thanks for the impressive pies but an update would be appreciated. Yes?

  4. fenderowner

    May 3, 2022 at 4:05 pm

    Predicted in the early eighties by the PA&E “fighter mafia” led by USAF Col. John Boyd. One of his acolytes, Frank Spinney, developed a briefing showing the rising costs of DoD weapon systems. Regarding aircraft, he had a chart showing historical aircraft flyaway costs vs. time, and sooner or later the USAF would essentially have to spend most or all of its annual budget on a single aircraft (note that this briefing was developed during the B-2 pre-production program, and those aircraft ended up with close to $1B flyaway costs). Spinney’s primary reason for the rapidly growing aircraft costs was “requirements creep” – i.e., trying to design and produce aircraft that could perform multiple missions. We are now starting to see this in spades – look at the F-35: stealth; interceptor; close air support; strategic bomber; standoff attack platform; battlefield information hub; etc. etc. It appears NGAD may be quickly heading in this direction.

  5. slartibartfast

    May 3, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    “But each of the semi-autonomous aircraft could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

    Well, since each F-35 costs $1B, I’d say that would be a bargain!

  6. Fenderowner

    May 4, 2022 at 12:44 am

    Hard to find an official F-35 unit cost, but some web sources cite $90M for the F-35A, $111M for the F-35B, and $107M for th F-35C. The more disturbing cost, however, appears to be the hourly operating cost: ~$36K/hr. That is a significant number when you consider the Air Force wants to purchase about 1750 F-35s over the next 25 or so years.

  7. Biden Hunter

    May 4, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    Democrats would buy the cheaper Chinese version. The Bidens have worked out.

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