The U.S. Air Force could have its first sixth-generation fighter jets by the end of the decade if everything goes as planned in the Next Generation Air Dominance program (NGAD).
The NGAD Program
Through the NGAD program, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin, the leading manufacturer, are looking to design and deploy the next generation of fighter jets after the F-35 Lighting II stealth fighter jet that is currently in service.
But the NGAD program concerns more than just one aircraft. Indeed, the NGAD program is developing several different manned and unmanned capabilities that will belong to the same family and could operate together.
The NGAD program includes both a manned sixth-generation fighter jet and an unmanned aerial vehicle that will support the jet.
In October, Lockheed Martin released more artistic renderings of the NGAD fighter jet as part of its promotion of the LMXT tanker, which would support the Air Force’s future fleet, including the NGAD fighter jet.
From the artistic renderings that the Air Force and Lockheed Martin have provided, we know that the NGAD will be quite futuristic. Indeed, the rendering shows a delta-shaped aircraft more akin to aircraft found in sci-fi movies than to what is currently flying in the air.
The NGAD fighter jet is expected to come with a hefty price tag, with current estimates having the number for each aircraft at $200 million.
However, the Air Force might not purchase the usual number of aircraft it does when a new fighter jet rolls out. The U.S. military as a whole is planning to buy approximately 1,500 F-35 Lighting II fighter jets of all types. But it will most likely buy a much smaller number of NGAD fighter jets because the sixth-generation aircraft is expected to remain in service for a much shorter period than the F-35, which is now expected to fly until 2070. With the NGAD program, the Air Force is moving toward a new model of development and procurement that opts for a smaller gap between new aircraft that would allow for the introduction of new technologies much faster.
The NGAD Program Is Moving Fast
Over the summer, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said that the NGAD program has moved into the next phase of development and that the goal is to have an operational capability by 2030. According to Kendal, the NGAD program has begun the Engineering, Manufacturing, and Development (EMD) phase, which is one step before production.
Should Kendall prove to be accurate and the program continues to move at that pace, it would be an incredible feat of engineering and procurement compared to other aircraft programs.
For example, as Sandboxx News reports, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program began its EMD phase in October 2001, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the fifth-generation fighter jet achieved initial operating capability. That is 14 years for only one (the F-35B, which is the Short-take Off, Vertical Landing iteration of the fighter jet) of the three versions of the F-35 to become operational. The F-35A, which is the conventional take-off version of the stealth fighter jet, achieved initial operating capability a year later in 2016, while the F-35C, which is designed for aircraft carrier operations, didn’t achieve initial operating capability until three years ago in 2019.
However, the F-35 is an outlier, and the average time that it takes for an aircraft to move from the EMD phase to its initial operating capability is seven years.
Bonus: Tempest – UK 6th Generation Fighter
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.
November 18, 2022 at 9:21 pm
The US should “kick the can down the road” on the next “Manned” combat aircraft until it has the entire range (air superiority, ISR, ground attack, EW, etc.) of cheap, long range, attritable, UAVs fielded in large numbers. Then, and only then, should the case be made to justify another insanely expensive manned combat aircraft (not likely). The US can buy hundreds of smart weapons for the price of one $200+ million NGAD. The purpose of combat aircraft is to deliver smart weapons to the battlefield, UAV’s are the most efficient way to do that mission.
November 19, 2022 at 1:36 pm
Probably true, which is why Congress will move ahead quickly with NGAD.
November 19, 2022 at 3:01 pm
Given the advancements in technology, I would see a return to an old idea. The fighter ferried by a larger craft. Picture the skeletonized frame of a heavy lift helicopter as winged jet transport. Add 6 NGAD delt-wing fighter without tails to interfere when being dropped, or in being reattached for both refueling And rearming in flight. It could also fly with unmanned aircraft as well. The advantage would be vastly expanded range and flexible options for recovery or delivery.
The other advantage here is that once established, technological advances in drones (especially drones) or manned aircraft would fit with the delivery system and could be upgraded independently of the other.
November 20, 2022 at 8:25 pm
This next fighter plane project will more than likely become more like the SLS rocket project, a jobs project so the politicians can point to the number of jobs brought to their state. Like the SLS rocket project it will not be economic to use for the purpose it was designed to do. The SLS rocket costs $4.5 billion dollars to launch one rocket and it is not reusable. So even though there has been 10 to 15 years and about $25 Billion dollars invested and it is several years behind schedule for just the rocket to fly. Meanwhile there are other rockets that was started after the SLS rocket and has been ready to fly for about three years and cost about $500 million to launch. BTW it will also lift more than the SLS will even now. And it is reusable! When politicians get involved in a project the cost go up and the launch date seems to fall far behind schedule.
Don't Send a Machine To Do a Man's Job...Yet.
November 20, 2022 at 9:35 pm
“The US should “kick the can down the road” on the next “Manned” combat aircraft until it has the entire range (air superiority, ISR, ground attack, EW, etc.) of cheap, long range, attritable, UAVs fielded in large numbers.”
This is a common refrain, and a logical one – if we had the technology to do it. Unfortunately, we don’t – in order to replace a manned combat platform with an unmanned one, you must be able to field something that that can perform at least to the standard of a highly-trained, high-IQ warfighter. We aren’t there yet, and it’s going to take another generation or two to get there. In the meantime, stalking horses like China will continue to close the gap in air (and everything else) superiority, which necessitates programs like NGAD to ensure they don’t.
The era of frontline AI combat is near, but it’s not here yet.