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NGAD: The Stealth Fighter Twice as Expensive as the F-35?

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II flies over Israel in support of exercise Enduring Lightning III, Oct. 12, 2020. The United States and Israeli air forces train to maintain a ready posture to deter against regional aggression while forging strategic partnerships across the U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command areas of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)

NGAD seems to already be making noise as a potentially game-changing 6th-generation stealth fighter. However, all of that big capability will come at an insane cost. Will it even be affordable or worth it? For the U.S. Air Force, next-generation air dominance has a nice ring to it. Otherwise known as NGAD, who wouldn’t like a fighter plane better than the F-35 and F-22? But is it worth the high price tag? Maybe the United States should focus on buying more F-35s and ensuring that F-22s do their jobs. But the NGAD has allure. The 6th generation fighter means the latest in stealth technology, new weapons, and improved engines for supercruise ability, among other modernizations.

Is it worth hundreds of millions of dollars for each airplane? This could be up to twice as much as the F-35 and even more than the F-22’s price tag of $122 million each.

Is It Already Flying?

There have been reports that the Air Force has built a technology demonstrator for the NGAD and it is already flying. The service branch acquisition leaders say the platform is “breaking records.” But high spending is still an issue on Capitol Hill.

Air Force Leadership Believes in the NGAD 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall got an earful about these soaring costs at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 27, but he answered back with optimism about the NGAD based on his experience with the development of the F-22.

“It’s going to be an expensive airplane; F-22 was an expensive airplane. It was one of my aircraft in one of my earlier positions, but it’s also an incredibly effective aircraft. It’s been dominant in the air for decades now. And we expect NGAD to be the same,” Kendall told lawmakers.

Loyal Wingman Concept Means Having a Coach in the Air

Kendall said the NGAD will have an augmentation of stealth drones called the “loyal wingman” concept that are also part of the program. These are expected to be much cheaper than the manned airplane.

“We need a more affordable mix for the future,” Kendall said. “And the question is, how do we get there? And that’s one of the reasons I’m introducing the idea of uncrewed combat aircraft that are much less expensive and can be attritable, … not necessarily expendable—they’re not munitions—but they can be used at a higher rate and help populate our force structure.”

The Drones Are Force Multipliers

The drones will help NGAD pilots attain greater situational awareness and provide targeting data and intelligence and surveillance information that can be shared with the next-generation fighter and command and control airplanes.

The U.S. Navy has its own NGAD program, called the F/A-XX, and they are also not as forthcoming with budgetary line items for cost.

Can Taxpayers Look Past the High Price?

There’s much to like about the NGAD for both service branches.

U.S. adversaries are forging ahead with their own new fighters and the Americans want to achieve air dominance. Still, Congress should be leery of giving the Air Force and the Navy a blank check for these two acquisition efforts. A branch secretary saying “trust me” for an aircraft that costs hundreds of millions of dollars should make policymakers take a pause. The details are also vague.

NGAD: Play Up the Positives

The “quarterback” concept of the NGAD running a flight of drones is intellectually appealing. The NGAD could stay out of range of enemy defenses and send the drones to do the dirty work in contested air space. That is something the Navy and Air Force should pursue – maybe the force multiplier notion of the airplane is more of a selling point in future back and forth with Congress. Kendall will have to go up in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee as well and he will likely receive more pointed questions about costs for the NGAD. He may want to be more specific in future hearings and media statements. The F-22 and F-35 have been expensive enough.

Now serving as 1945’s 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. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

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.