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Meet NGAD: The U.S. Air Force’s Stealth Fighter Future?

NGAD
NGAD artist concept from Northrop Grumman.

The US Air Force is quietly developing a sixth-generation fighter platform. While fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 and F-35 are still world-leading, cutting-edge platforms, the US is wary of advancing fighter technology in rival states like Russia, and, especially, China.

NGAD: Does America Really Need It?

Whether the US needs a sixth-generation fighter is debatable. The US still leads the world with respect to existing aerospace platforms. In terms of quality and quantity, the US is unrivaled. Although China is aggressively expanding their domestic aircraft-making abilities; they have already constructed over 200 Chengdu J-20s, a fifth-generation fighter that shares DNA with both Russian and US designs. China is also working to develop their own sixth-generation fighter. And as China promises to be the US’s primary rival, the world’s only other great power, the US is unlikely to let the Chinese gain any perceived advantage with respect to fighter technology. Accordingly, the US will pursue a sixth-generation fighter, regardless of the resources required.

What Is NGAD?

The US sixth-generation project, or the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project, is still in preliminary design phases – and has not yet entered the engineering, manufacturing, and development stage. The USAF has stated that they intend to field a NGAD before the end of the decade. Given that 2022 is almost over, and the jet is still in the design phase, some observers are wondering if the USAF’s timeline is still feasible.

The USAF has, understandably, kept the NGAD program secretive. Not much is known about the highly classified program. But speaking in June, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall confirmed that the USAF is still designing the NGAD – and that the NGAD has not gone through the “Milestone B” review process. Milestone B “marks the completion of a program’s technology maturation phase and the formal start of an acquisition program,” Defense News reported, “when the service takes its preliminary design and focuses on system integration, manufacturing processes and other details ahead of production.”

Timeline for the New Stealth Fighter

Outsiders are not particularly confident the NGAD program will be in the air before the end of the decade. Heritage Foundation fellow and former USAF pilot John Venable told Defense News “It could happen [by 2030], but the odds are against it happening. Heather Penney, another former USAF plot and now a fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies agrees. “I have serious skepticism that NGAD will reach meaningful full-rate production…by the end of the decade,” she said. “it would be realistic to expect that full-rate production will not occur until sometime into the 2030s. I would love for the Air Force to prove this wrong.”

Still, all debate is focused on when the NGAD will be operational, and when it is operational, what the platform will actually be capable of. No one seems too concerned with the question of whether we need the NGAD in the first place. The myopic focus on forging ahead and developing newer, better military technology is nothing new, certainly not in the aerospace realm. The US has been “pedal to the medal” with respect to churning out new and improved aerospace designs since World War II or so.

Maintaining an edge over our competitors in the air is something that US military leaders are completely fixated on. One wouldn’t expect that to change now, with another great power ascending to challenge US unipolarity for the first time in the thirty years since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The US aerospace industrial complex never really stops to rest; when the NGAD is operational, whenever that is, the US will pivot seamlessly into designing their seventh-generation fighter, without a moment’s rest.

NGAD: A Bonus Photo Essay

China NGAD 6th Generation Fighter

China NGAD 6th Generation Fighter. Image Credit: Chinese Social Media.

NGAD China 6th-Generation Fighter

NGAD China 6th-Generation Fighter. Image Credit: Twitter.

Lockheed Martin NGAD Fighter

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin NGAD

Image: Lockheed Martin.

B-21

An artist illustration depicts a U.S. Air Force extended-range B-21 Raider escorted on a mission by armed unmanned next generation air dominance platforms. This fictional bomber features longer, wider wings, and a deeper fuselage that accommodates larger fuel tanks and dual weapons bays that enables the bomber to carry a much larger and varied payload. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; Greg Davis/USAF

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. 

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. pagar

    November 12, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Unlikely.

    Manned fighters in the future are going the way of the dodo.

    Moreover, they need costly massive bases fully equipped with well-stuffed fried chicken joints and fancy wifi-loaded washrooms.

    The future of aerial dominance? Trans-medium AI-flown fighters that can travel to space, loiter there and re-enter atmosphere and do at least one round about the horizon.

    They don’t need pilots that have to answer the call of nature.

  2. Steven

    November 12, 2022 at 9:00 pm

    pagar, why are you so sure NGAD will need a pilot?

  3. Matthew Brubach

    November 14, 2022 at 8:22 am

    Mr. Kass,

    Why would an irrelevant country like China, pop-up in an article about American next generation fighters? A better question is: why would an irrelevant country like China, be praised as a global superpower in your articles?

    Let me tell you a story. If you read this and don’t believe me, you can easily do the research yourself and find out I’m telling the truth.

    The year was 1976. Chinese leader Mao Zedong had just died. The decision was made to to inter Mao’s body in a crystal coffin, inside a mausoleum, just as the Soviets had done with Lenin. So, the mausoleum was built. But, there was a problem. The chinese didn’t know how to build, nor did they have the capability to build, the crystal (glass) coffin where Mao’s body would be displayed. But they tried. And they failed.

    Finally, the chinese reached a point where they admitted defeat, and sent a request to Moscow for assistance. And the Soviets sent their team of engineers to advise and assist the chinese. The Russians had to show them how to build it.

    It was 1976! The United States was flying SR-71’s at 80,000 feet, travelling so fast it took states to turn around. And the chinese couldn’t build a glass box.

    Several months ago I saw a tweet from a fairly high ranking official of the chinese communist party. He tweeted an image of an official poster -a memorial to the 2.9 million chinese soldiers that crossed the North Korean border to fight the Americans. 2.9 million! Official communist party numbers!

    The greastest number of American troops on the Korean Peninsula during the war was 330,000. That means 2.9 million chinese troops couldn’t drive 330,000 Americans from the Korean Peninsula. The chinese entered the war to ensure Kim Il-Sung was successful in uniting the Korean Peninsula under his rule. The chinese actually think they won that war. But all I have to do to prove them wrong, is to point out the fact that South Korea is still there, and so are we.

    In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was in control of Kampuchea. They repeatedly crossed the border with Vietnam and massacred Vietnamese villagers. They killed thousands. Vietnam was backed by the Soviets, so China decided to back Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam finally had enough and invaded Cambodia.

    They quickly liberated Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge from power. In retalliation, the Chinese sent their army across the border into Vietnam (Sino-Vietnamese War). The chinese had the benefit of numbers. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, were just coming off victories over the French and the US. They were well equipped by the Soviets. They were battle-hardened experts of asymmetrical warfare.

    Although the Vietnamese were being pushed back by the mass of chinese troops, they were able to inflict a huge amount of damage on the Chinese. So much so, that after 3 weeks of fighting, the chinese pulled back to their own side of the border. According to the chinese, they had accomplished their objective of teaching Vietnam a lesson.

    Now, ten years ago you could read about that on various sites. You would see the casualty figures were very lopsided in favor of the Vietnamese. The kill ratio was as high as 6:1. But in the last few years I’ve noticed those numbers slowly changing. Now, the casualty figures are almost even. The chinese have been quietly rewriting history.

    And they’ve put forth massive effort, with a massive online presence, to guide American public opinion. Through their “United Front Work Department”, chinese citizens are employed to make you think favorably of them.

    The truth is far different. China IS NOT a global superpower. They have two things working against them:

    1. They are not able to project their military power effectively, outside of their own borders. Until very recently, chinese troops did not participate in UN peacekeeping missions. Despite the fact they are a permanent member of the Security Council. They were too afraid that their troops would be an embarrasment to them. But they’ve begun to open bases on foreign soil. In Djibouti, in Pakistan, in Bangladesh (I believe). They want bases in Equatorial Guinea and the Solomon Islands. And they’ve been aggressively building up their navy. They first purchased an old Russian aircraft carrier. Then they built an exact chinese copy, so had two aircraft carriers (a joke by western standards). Now they’ve built one that actually has a catapault to launch aircraft. It will make a nice reef after the fighting starts.

    They also “developed” hypersonic missiles. They actually stole the know-how from the Russians. If you check, you will see several Russian ballistic and hypersonic missile scientists were recently arrested for selling secrets to the chinese.

    As you know, hypersonic are faster than slow moving cruise missiles and air to air missiles. But they’re much slower than ballistic missiles. The chinese put a hypersonic glide vehicle on a ballistic missile. The hypersonic glide vehicle can manuever and be steered to a degree, which makes them hard to hit. But the chinese are inept. During their tests, they were missing their target by 40 to 100 miles! Now, the largest warhead the chinese have on their Dong Feng ICBM’s, is a 5 megaton warhead. That’s overkill. But if they’re targeting, say, Salt Lake City, and they miss by 40 miles, not even a 5 megaton warhead is going to compensate for that. Even if they could fit a 5 megaton warhead on a hyperglide vehicle, Salt Lake City would escape fairly unharmed.

    2. The chinese are incapable of taking an idea from concept to reality. The chinese openly admit that they prefer to steal American and Russian designs, then copy them. They believe this puts them on par with the west. I’d wager you couldn’t find one modern aircraft that the chinese developed, that isn’t an obvious copy of an American or Russian plane. The reason they do this, is because they can’t do it any other way.

    China believes this is the Chinese century. They want to be recognized as THE GLOBAL SUPERPOWER -And they want it now! They’re willing to steal and copy their way to have the military strength to challenge the US. But cheap copies don’t have the capabilities of the real thing. China hasn’t worked for it. And they tried to jump ahead, by cutting any corner they could. And that doesn’t work.

    China IS NOT A GLOBAL SUPERPOWER! They are an irrelevance. They are 1.4 billion people crammed into 6 apartment buildings on their east coast.

    P.S. Were you friends with Adam Lanza? Portland needs to get rid of the homeless, send Ted Wheeler to china, and deport anybody that works for his staff. I’m sure you agree. Goodbye from over the West Hills.

    Sincerely,
    Matt Brubach -Not a chinese guy.

  4. D

    November 14, 2022 at 8:36 am

    This argument of pilot v no pilot reminds me of the Air Force during Vietnam when they got rid of their guns. Sure there will be AI flights, but you will always need people in the air.

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