NGAD: The chosen one - US Air Force commits to sole 6th-generation fighter

The USAF has confirmed that "there can be only one" NGAD 6th-generation fighter in the future. But we'll have to wait to find out which one.
Christopher McFadden
Photo illustration: F-35.
Photo illustration: F-35.

Lockheed Martin 

After several years of speculation, the United States Air Force (USAF) has confirmed that there will be only one Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) in the future. Speaking at a meeting in Washington D.C., Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall couldn't." have made the USAF's feeling clearer on the issue.

"We're not going to do two NGADs. We're only going to do one," he stated, according to John Tirpak of Air and Space Forces. While the finalists for winning the contract are currently unknown, top contenders will likely be a mix of Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, with support from competing jet engine manufacturers Pratt & Whitney and General Electric.

The NGAD program aims to take over the Air Force's F-22A Raptor stealth fighters by the 2030s. Despite their exceptional agility and stealth capabilities, the F-22 fleet's small size has made it excessively costly to maintain and upgrade due to its dependence on outdated non-open architecture systems and high-maintenance radar absorbent materials technology from the 1990s.

To this end, the Air Force recently invited designs for an NGAD fighter, with the winning concept set to be announced in 2024. Ideally, according to Popular Mechanics, the Air Force would like to obtain 250 of these fighters, although they acknowledge that each one would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. To put things into perspective, the current F-35A stealth fighter costs around $85 million due to large-scale production. The NGAD fighter is expected to have improved sensors and communication links compared to the F-22, while also being more agile than the F-35.

The Air Force is projected to spend $16 billion over the next five years on the research, development, testing, and evaluation of NGAD. They aim to create a future warplane that has significantly lower operating costs than the F-22s and, hopefully, the F-35s.

According to Kendall, the Pentagon also aims to prevent ownership of the NGAD from being centralized in one manufacturer, which has caused intellectual property (IP) disputes with Lockheed, the manufacturer of the F-35. The objective of NGAD is for the government to maintain the IP of multiple aircraft systems right from the start. This will enable the incorporation of new technologies from other companies or the development of quick solutions without being bombarded with cease-and-desist letters.

It also is worth mentioning that there are two programs called "Next Generation Air Dominance". Interestingly, both programs bear the same name. One program is led by the U.S. Navy and aims to replace the FA-18E/F Super Hornet carrier-based fighters in the future. For the USAF, NGAD will specialize in air-to-air combat similar to the F-22, but it will also possess some ground attack capabilities, particularly for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). Furthermore, it is anticipated that NGAD will have a higher internal weapon capacity than the F-22.

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