According to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the US Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter aircraft is nearing completion. Kendall is never at a loss for words, and he often speaks at conferences with jokes and quotes that can help us find clues to future weapon systems. This time, in an address to an industry meeting, Kendall announced that the NGAD program is now in the design phase.
What’s next for NGAD?
Speaking to reporters gathered Sept. 19 at the Air and Space Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Kendall said, “We’re working on the actual design of the aircraft…that means we’re in the design and manufacturing development phase .” according to National Defense Magazine.
Getting closer to the next milestone
The next step for the NGAD would be a professional design review, known as Milestone B, he said. Milestone B is the critical part of the Design, Manufacture and Development phase or EMD. So the NGAD is still years away from mass production or operational capability, but the designers probably have some concrete ideas about what it will look like.
An NGAD can lead a dominant drone flight
The NGAD is intended to replace the F-22 as the sixth generation fighter aircraft. It will be a family of systems that can allow the aircraft to be a “quarterback in the air” to guide networked drones in the “loyal wingman” concept. This will allow NGAD to receive situational awareness and target data from up to five stealth unmanned systems flying in formation. NGAD can better penetrate enemy airspace and fire their ammo with this configuration, or let the drones fly ahead and fire theirs. The NGAD can also be integrated into F-35s to create a formidable squadron of aircraft.
Mission with multiple roles
A robotic plane could carry electronic warfare gear, one could be a decoy and one could be loaded with standoff missiles for ground attack. This is NGAD’s power multiplier aspect to brush up on its credentials for a full-time operational advantage. “The idea is to create multiple targets that an enemy can’t ignore,” Kendall said.
Kendall reminded the audience that NGAD won’t be ready until the end of the decade. But the future hunter will be able to gather new skills as aerospace technologies such as artificial intelligence mature.
Nothing so advanced comes cheap these days
This program will require a huge investment – nearly hundreds of millions of dollars per aircraft. In FY23 alone, the Air Force wanted $1.3 billion for NGAD, including $133 million for research and development, testing and evaluation.
Will White House Strategy Include NGAD?
Kendall has previously said he has a sense of urgency regarding NGAD. Meanwhile, the White House will publish its National Security Strategy any day. It was delayed to allow for the war in Ukraine and China’s plans for Taiwan. It will be interesting to see if NGAD shows up in the document. The National Security Strategy is designed to drive acquisition and procurement, so many in Congress are awaiting its introduction.
At first I was skeptical about the NGAD. I figured the money going into this program could be better spent buying more F-35s and keeping the F-22s aloft. But since then I’ve changed my mindset to invest more R&D money into it. China is building more J-20 Mighty Dragon fighters with stealth capabilities, not to mention more aircraft carriers. The US military needs to stay on top, and the NGAD project is a way to gain an air combat advantage that may be more survivable in a conflict with China, especially since Beijing has more plans for Taiwan with unification efforts leading to reunification could lead to war shooting.
Expert biography: As the 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M Eastwood is the author of People, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.