US Air Force sixth-generation fighter aircraft will cost twice that of an F-35

Making it the most expensive program in aircraft history.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's rendering of an advanced Jet Fighterbfk92/ iStock

U.S. Air Force's sixth-generation fighter aircraft could cost hundreds of millions of dollars per plane, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told members of Congress recently, Air Force Mag reported

The U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor was the world's first fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be put into service. However, when it comes to the sixth-generation aircraft, other nations such as Russia, the U.K., and Japan have revealed more about their designs, if not program advancements, than the U.S. The Air Force Secretary's statement during a Committee hearing for the 2023 fiscal budget gave some information regarding the U.S. proceedings in the matter. 

Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Program

The centerpiece of the Air Force's NGAD program will be the sixth-generation fighter, the one scheduled to replace the aging F-22s. While planned upgrades will see the F-22s flying for more than a decade, the NGAD will bring an array of capabilities that haven't been seen in a fighter aircraft before.

Key technologies such as propulsion, stealth, advanced weapons, and thermal management of aircraft signature are all set to see major upgrades in this aircraft. The Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP), which some believe is unaffordable for the F-35s, could possibly be a part of the next-generation aircraft. 

The NGAD is also being touted as a 'family of systems' that could see a lot of unmanned aircraft equipped with a wide variety of sensors and payloads being deployed alongside the manned planes. In high-risk situations, the unmanned aircraft would be designated to carry out missions, keeping the aircraft and its pilot out of harm's way. 

How much would it cost? 

At $135 million apiece, the F-22s were the most expensive planes the U.S. Air Force developed. In comparison, F-35s came with a lesser price tag of $80 million per tail. Over the years, however, the sustainment costs of the F-35s have shot up considerably, taking the program's service cost to over $1.25 trillion across its lifetime, Air Force Mag reported. 

The U.S. Air Force is cognizant of this development and is taking utmost care to avoid a repeat of such a scenario with the NGAD. Kendall told Congress that the Air Force was paying close attention during the development of the aircraft to ensure that while the initial manufacturing costs were high, the upgrades and maintenance could be achieved in a cost-efficient manner. 

Kendall reiterated the unmanned components of the NGAD would be comparatively cheaper to produce, and while these aircraft would be attributable to risky tasks, they would not be cheap enough to be expendable during these missions. When asked to put an exact figure on the cost of the unmanned aircraft, Kendall told Congress that the Air Force did not have a 'hard estimate' yet.