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NGAD: The Air Force’s Next Stealth Fighter Will Be Built for a Russia or China War

NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.
NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.

NGAD: The U.S. Air Force Is Throwing Its Might Behind a Planned 6th Generation Fighter – The U.S. Air Force believes the future 6th generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter is so important that it will need a “whole of government” approach to place the warplane in the hands of aviators before the end of the decade.

That means the NGAD is a top priority for the Air Force even though each airplane could cost several hundred million dollars apiece (double or even triple the cost of an F-35).

Let us take a closer look at the NGAD to see if it is worth such a massive investment in money and resources.

Starting Off Experimental

Many observers and analysts are unaware that the Air Force has been working on the NGAD since 2015 when it was a technology demonstrator and “X” program or experimental,  conceptual project.

It has now graduated to a vital period. The airplane has entered the engineering and manufacturing development phase, according to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.

China Is Setting the Pace

The NGAD program will need to keep up with China’s sixth-generation fighter efforts and sprint ahead of this competition in the coming years.

China’s defense industry is producing the fifth generation J-20 fighter with stealth characteristics at a rate of 20 to 30 units each year.

Take Over From the Raptor

The NGAD will replace the F-22 Raptor as Air Force acquisition leaders are worried that the Raptor will become too expensive to operate in the future.

NGAD will also require the development of drones such as the Valkyrie to prove out the “Loyal Wingman” networking concept. This means the NGAD will play “quarterback” and control unmanned combat craft in a “family of systems.” The Valkyrie itself could even launch smaller drones and is a key piece of the Air Force’s Skyborg artificial intelligence program that controls the unmanned craft.

If It’s Going to East Asia, It Needs to Have Long Range

One aspect that the Air Force is concerned about regarding its NGAD program is the necessity to have long range to fly in the Indo-Pacific in China’s neighborhood. It will likely be forward-deployed in Guam, for example, and need the ability to reach targets without aerial re-fueling.

Optimum range would be over 2,000 nautical miles so the fighter could fly from Guam to Okinawa.

X-44 Manta

NGAD Artist’s rendering (USAF).

The NGAD could be highly stealthy, but China can track a tanker re-fueling which defeats the advantage the sixth-generation fighter would have with its radar-evading capability.

Multiple Jobs, a High Ceiling, and Plenty of Fuel

The NGAD, for its high price, would also need to be both air dominant and multi-role. This means adept dogfighting and powerful ground strike capability. NGAD’s long range could help protect Japan or South Korea, not to mention Taiwan if a Chinese missile attack or blockade was executed against the island.

The NGAD is also expected to have a high ceiling to help evade radar perhaps as high as 70,000 feet. The new fighter, to avoid the need for external fuel tanks and aerial re-fueling, would need large fuel tanks inside the airplane, which means the NGAD would be bigger than the F-22 or F-35.

What One Expert Told Us About NGAD

The NGAD, according to John Venable, Senior Fellow in Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation, started with the downsizing of the F-22 over previous presidential administrations.

“When the concept for the F-22 was devised, the plan was to buy 750 Advanced Tactical Fighters (ATF – what would become the F-22) – about one for ever F-15A/C the Air Force had in its inventory.  Successive Secretaries of Defense reduced that buy over time until Secretary Robert Gates truncated the F-22A buy to just 186 jets – far too few to execute the air superiority mission against a peer adversary.  NGAD is designed to fill that role, and it is absolutely needed,” Venable said.


By: Image Credit: Rodrigo Avella

Eye Watering Cost

Venable concedes the price of the NGAD may be a factor in how effective the future airplane can be. “Time will tell whether or not NGAD will be worth whatever price, but a cost of several hundred million dollars per fighter will limit the number we can purchase – and numbers matter.”

Unmanned Wingman Could Make a Difference

But Venable believes the NGAD’s Loyal Wingman feature is intriguing. “It has the potential to be a real force multiplier,” he said, “And, by putting unmanned wingmen forward into the highest threat envelopes, it also has the potential to limit manned losses.”

It Comes Down to Keeping Ahead of Moscow and Beijing

Venable thinks that the NGAD will spur Russia and China to keep up with the United States with their own next-generation fighters, and it appears the fighter arms race has already started. “The thresholds for separating one generation of fighters from another is generally clear, but I have yet to see a capability so clearly advanced that it far surpass the generation that is currently being fielded. The Russians and Chinese clearly see the advantages of stealth and have moved to field their own fifth generation fighters and I am sure that whenever the U.S. fields the next generational advantage that those two nations will eventually move to compete,” Venable said.


Image of F-35 Stealth Fighter. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

NGAD Bottomline

The high price tag is prohibitive, but serial production, if the Air Force can bring the NGAD to fruition by 2030, could bring the marginal unit cost down. If the F-22 begins to go offline in the coming years, the NGAD will have to take its place, so it will be badly needed in that scenario. With China and Russia racing to get more 5th generation fighters in the air, the United States may have no choice but to ante up for the NGAD.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

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.