The Pentagon must learn from the failures to plan the NGAG fighter.

The US Air Force has recently initiated the process of accepting proposals for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation fighter, with plans to award the contract in 2024. However, there are concerns regarding the cost of the NGAD, which is expected to be significantly higher than that of the F-35. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has stated that the NGAD will cost “multiples” of the F-35, implying that each plane will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The development and procurement of fifth-generation fighter aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, have faced numerous challenges that need to be addressed by the Department of Defense. The F-22 program, initially planned to be completed in nine years with a budget of $12.6 billion, eventually took 19 years and $26.3 billion to produce. The cost per unit also escalated by 177%, from the initial estimate of $149 million to $412 million.

Additionally, the F-22 has faced reliability issues, with a readiness rate of only 50.81% in 2021 and half of the Air Force fleet being considered to combat effective. Due to problems with the aircraft and a lack of a defined mission, the Department of Defense reduced its original plan to purchase 750 F-22s to 187 units.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the largest procurement program of the Department of Defense, has encountered similar challenges. Manufactured in different versions for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, it has also been sold to US allies. However, like the F-22, the F-35 has experienced cost overruns and schedule delays. The total acquisition costs have surpassed $428 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion, and the expected operations and maintenance costs throughout its lifespan exceed $1.7 trillion.

One of the key factors contributing to the persistent problems with the F-35 is the decision to develop and procure the aircraft simultaneously. This approach led to costly retrofits and changes to already assembled aircraft whenever issues were identified.

The prolonged development timeline for the F-35 has forced the Department of Defense to continuously incorporate new technologies and update features, resulting in an overly complex platform with a low readiness rate. Despite being a marginal improvement over the F-22, the F-35A, the Air Force variant, has maintained a lower readiness rate compared to older aircraft. In 2021, only 68.8% of F-35As were mission capable on average, down from 76.07% in 2020.

Given these challenges, it is crucial that the Department of Defense learns from the experiences with the F-22 and F-35 and takes steps to control costs and schedule delays in the development of the NGAD. The budget for the NGAD is expected to increase from $1.9 billion in FY24 to $4.1 billion in FY28, including the acquisition of collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs) like drones. The Air Force plans to procure 1,000 CCAs, with 400 designated for the NGAD and 600 for the F-35A.

The high costs, delays, and performance issues of fifth-generation aircraft have resulted in a readiness gap, forcing the Air Force to rely on older generations of aircraft as substitutes. With an aging fleet and stretched defense spending, the Department of Defense cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes with consecutive generations of fighter jets. Completing the development phase of the NGAD before making any purchases, as advised by former Secretary James of the Air Force, is crucial.

It is vital for the Department of Defense to learn from the lessons of the F-22 and F-35 programs and implement measures to control costs and adhere to schedules in order to produce sixth-generation aircraft that are both cost-effective and timely.