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Sticker Shock: New Air Force NGAD Stealth Fighter Is No Bargain

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

The Air Force clear wants a new stealth fighter – commonly referred to as NGAD.

But how much will it cost?

Will it be worth the price paid? We asked a top expert to break down this issue for us: 

NGAD Is Coming

Just what is it going to cost to build and purchase the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter? Known as the NGAD, costs for the project are already extremely high. The U.S. Air Force is now spending $1.9 billion to pay for research and development, testing, and evaluation this year for the new bird. Each airplane could cost hundreds of millions to produce once the Air Force finally gives the nod to one of the major defense contractors.

A Piece of the Pie

The sixth-generation NGAD is slated to replace the F-22 Raptor, which has also cost a pretty penny over the years. The Air Force has sent out a request for proposals to prime defense contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to compete for the NGAD bid. After the initial contractor is chosen, the competition won’t end. The losers will likely file protests with Air Force acquisition to force them to take another look at the winner. 

An added request for proposals will be for the engines that power the NGAD. Competitors are expected to be Pratt & Whitney, Raytheon Technologies, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. These companies have received almost $1 billion dollars each to build and test an engine prototype. The competing engines are supposed to be ready by 2032. Expect the losers on the engine bid to file a protest again. There is just too much money involved for competitors to quit without a fight.

Total R&D costs for the NGAD are expected to be $16 billion over the next five years as the concept matures and the competition is held. The airplane will not be ready until the 2030s.   

Family of Drones Flies With the Fighters

NGAD is a so-called family of systems, which means it will not be a single manned airplane. It will exemplify the loyal wingman concept in which stealth drones fly with the NGAD. The tethered drones will be able to swoop out in front and deliver intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data to the main NGAD fighter. The drones can use electronic warfare tactics to disable enemy air defenses. These unmanned collaborative combat aircraft can also deploy their munitions to attack air and ground targets. NGAD is envisioned as a Day One fighter that secures air superiority in the early stages of a conflict.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is optimistic about the new concept and implores Congress to fully fund the initiative in the years to come. 

“The NGAD Platform is a vital element of the Air Dominance Family of Systems which represents a generational leap in technology over the F-22, which it will replace.” Kendall said in a news release. “NGAD will include attributes such as enhanced lethality and the abilities to survive, persist, interoperate, and adapt in the air domain, all within highly contested operational environments. No one does this better than the U.S. Air Force, but we will lose that edge if we don’t move forward now.”

Could We Get 200 NGAD Systems — Or Perhaps None?

Kendall believes the Air Force should buy 200 NGAD systems. It is not clear if that 200 includes the drones — the unmanned vehicles could cost $350 million apiece. If each NGAD costs several hundred million dollars and is flanked by four drones at the above price, you can see how the costs add up. Just two drone wingmen and the NGAD could cost $1.35 billion. These are initial estimates, of course — schedule slips and cost overruns often happen during airplane development, and these could push costs higher still.

Defense analyst Rich Smith, writing for investment publication Motley Fool, doesn’t think anyone should run out and buy stock in the big-name defense contractors. Smith thinks the program will get canceled. “And if I were a betting man, I’d bet heavily that, in the end, no one will build America’s next great fighter jet, the NGAD. If you’re considering investing in any defense contractors in hopes they’ll win the NGAD contract, you’d be well advised to factor this risk into your estimates of future defense contractor earnings and invest — or not invest – accordingly,” he wrote

With such an eye watering price tag, future lawmakers will have tough decisions to make. To keep up with the Chinese, the Air Force needs a next-generation fighter. But can it stomach such a long development period and the need for ample investment into a program that could someday be canceled? 

I like the loyal wingman concept. It is the best way to protect a fighter and to make sure a follow-on warplane like the B-21 stealth bomber can find its way safely to a target. I don’t like the procurement process — it is unlikely to go smoothly. The defense contractors involved will fight hard to get the final bid and will protest the award if they lose, slowing development and running up costs. Congress will need effective oversight of the program in the coming years to make sure NGAD remains on time and under budget and is not canceled.

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Author Expertise and Experience

Serving as 19FortyFive’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.