NGAD: The USAF develops a powerful sixth-generation fighter

The US Army’s strategy for a powerful sixth-generation fighter is known as NGAD.

The US Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Domination ( NGAD ) program would prioritize ideas like “special warfare” and “spectral dominance,” according to the service’s fiscal 2023 budget request.

NGAD: Air Dominance and Space Warfare

The next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platform is expected to dominate the skies well into the 2070s, but the US military is already looking to the future to preserve air superiority over its adversaries.

The importance of the NGAD program has grown as China and Russia, two of America’s main enemies, modernize their own next-generation fleets. This upcoming “family of systems” is intended to replace Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor fighter.

NGAD: The USAF develops a powerful sixth-generation fighter

History of the next generation aircraft program in the United States

The Air Force’s NGAD program, which got underway in 2014, sought to develop a capable sixth-generation airframe by the 2030s. Within a few years, the service established the Aerospace Innovation Initiative intending to create prototype aircraft of the future using the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Air Domain study.

Areas of technology that the NGAD aims to advance include propulsion, stealth, and cutting-edge weapons.

The Raptor is considered to be one of the most capable and cutting-edge air superiority fighters in the world, first introduced as the world’s first fifth-generation fighter. Despite this, only 186 F-22s were delivered when the plane’s production line was shut down. Today there are about 186 Raptors left in use.

NGAD: The USAF develops a powerful sixth-generation fighter

NGAD: Substitute for the F-22 Raptor

The next-generation platform will not necessarily completely fill the gap left by the Raptor, although the NGAD program aims to replace the F-22 in that Role. 

The smaller airframe of the F-22 allows for the super-maneuverability that gives the platform such an advantage in dogfights. The NGAD fighter is expected to be larger, which could increase the platform’s ability to carry weapons.

According to a 2020 assessment by the Congressional Research Service, “a large aircraft the size of a B-21 may not function as a fighter. However, a large aircraft carrying a directed energy weapon and having many engines producing a significant amount of electrical power for that weapon could ensure that no enemy aircraft would fly in a considerable part of the airspace. That’s air superiority.

US-China tensions

The rise of tensions between the United States and China in the South China Sea has raised the prospect of a full-scale military confrontation. If such a confrontation occurs, the NGAD fighters and the CCAs will certainly give US pilots the necessary advantage.

Although little information was released to the public in the early phases of the project, the Air Force has already done so.

The Role of Drones in air warfare

The agency revealed last month that it would have 200 NGAD stealth fighter jets and a fleet of about 1,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The sixth-generation jets and F-35s will cooperate with highly autonomous drones called collaborative combat aircraft (CCA).

According to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, UAVs are “remote-controlled versions” of the targeting or electronic warfare pods currently mounted under the wings of existing fighter jets.

Even though the price of a single next-generation airframe could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the secretary has defended the spending because of the similarly low price of CCAs.

The NGAD would work accompanied by drones.

Secretary Kendall testified in March before the House Appropriations defense panel that each UAV would cost 50 to 24 percent less than an F-35 fighter. Although the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is larger than the US air force, it has more air power than China. Secretary Kendall intends to “create mass” by using many less expensive CCAs.

The Secretary of the Air Force explained: “The expectation is that these (unmanned) aircraft can be designed to be less survivable and less capable but still contribute a lot to the fight in a mixture that the enemy has a very difficult time classifying and dealing with.”, adding: “You can even intentionally sacrifice some of them to draw fire, if you want, to expose the enemy.”