While the U.S. Air Force has openly discussed its new Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program for years, the competition to field the stealth fighter’s design has officially commenced.
According to the service, the winning designer of America’s next-generation airframe will be announced as early as next year.
“The Department of the Air Force released a classified solicitation to industry for an Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract for the Next Generation Air Dominance Platform with the intent to award a contract in 2024,” the release says, noting that “This solicitation release formally begins the source selection process providing industry with the requirements the DAF expects for NGAD, as the future replacement of the F-22.”
What about the Raptors?
The Lockheed Martin-designed F-22 Raptor represented the world’s first fifth-generation fighter when it took to the skies more than four decades ago. The formidable fighter, known for its tiny cross radar-section that makes it extremely challenging for enemy jets to detect, may be relegated to retirement pretty soon.
In 2022, the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services committee urged the Air Force to upgrade its aging Raptor fighters instead of nixing them altogether. The service, however, hopes to use the $500 million necessary to properly maintain the remaining 32 Block 20 F-22s on its NGAD program instead.
An overview of the NGAD program
Initiated nearly a decade ago, the Air Force’s NGAD program was conceptualized to design a capable sixth-generation fighter jet by the 2030’s. As tensions between Beijing and Washington have ramped up in recent years, however, this timeline may be shortened if the right funds and technologies are made available to the Air Force. Back in 2014, the service launched its Aerospace Innovation Initiative in order to incorporate the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Air Dominance study into a next-generation airframe.
The Air Force has turned to the usual suspects to fulfill the NGAD program’s competition needs. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, among others will compete in order to win the NGAD contract. Additionally, manufacturing and defense giants will be tasked with developing the engines that would power the NGAD. Among the most powerful American-made engines in rotation are Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and Northrop Grumman.
As spelled out by the Department of Defense, each company will receive nearly $1 billion dollars to design and test out a new engine prototype that could eventually power the next-generation airframe.
Although the NGAD program is often affiliated with a singular replacement fighter for the Raptor, the program actually refers to a “family of system,” featuring unmanned drone wingman expected to accompany the manned sixth-generation jet.
As detailed by Sandboxx News, “Earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall announced plans to purchase at least 1,000 of these drone wingmen — with the expectation that 200 new NGAD fighters will each fly with two drone wingmen at their side — and another 300 Block 4 F-35s also getting one pair of drones each as well. The branch aims to invest over $500 million into this effort in 2024.”
Now that the race to field the NGAD program is in the works, the future of the F-22 hangs even more in the balance.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.