USAF's Quest for Air Supremacy

USAF’s Quest for Air Supremacy

In the rapidly evolving landscape of global military power, air supremacy plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of conflicts. The United States has long maintained its dominance in this domain, relying on advanced fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor. However, with the rise of China’s air combat capabilities, particularly the formidable J-20 and KJ-500 systems, the USAF finds itself facing new challenges and the need for a paradigm shift.

The Rise of China’s Air Combat Power

China’s rapid modernization of its military has resulted in significant advancements in its air combat power. The J-20, China’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, has emerged as a worthy competitor to the F-22 Raptor. Additionally, the integration of the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control system enhances China’s kill chain capabilities, posing a substantial threat to the United States air superiority.

USAF's Quest for Air Supremacy

The F-22’s Inability to Compete with the J-20

The USAF faces a pressing concern with the F-22 Raptor’s inability to compete with the J-20 effectively. As a result, the 2023 budget includes a request to retire 33 older F-22 Block 20s. These aging aircraft lack modern weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and infrared search and track capabilities. Moreover, their status as trainer aircraft adds to the financial burden on the U.S. military.

USAF's Quest for Air Supremacy

Retirement of Older F-22 Block 20s

To address the limitations of the aging F-22 Block 20s, the USAF has decided to retire them from service. These aircraft are no longer viable options for maintaining air superiority due to their outdated technology and high maintenance costs. By phasing out these older models, the USAF aims to redirect resources toward next-generation solutions capable of countering emerging threats.

The Need for a Next-Generation Air Superiority Fighter

To regain its competitive edge, the USAF is actively pursuing the development of a next-generation air superiority fighter through the NGAD (Next-Generation Air Dominance) competition. Leading defense companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and others are participating in this program, which aims to replace the F-22 and strengthen the USAF’s air combat capabilities.

Unmanned and Unstoppable: NGAD's Quest to Redefine Fighter Aviation

NGAD Competition and Acquisition Process

The NGAD acquisition process incorporates valuable lessons from past Air Force programs, emphasizing open architecture standards. This approach allows for increased competitiveness throughout the fighter jet’s life cycle, advances the U.S. aviation industry as a whole, reduces development cycles, and significantly lowers maintenance costs. The competition focuses on programs that maintain operational and technological superiority, excluding loyal wingman initiatives.

Characteristics of the US NGAD Program

Despite limited public information, certain characteristics of the US NGAD program have come to light. The emphasis lies on prioritizing life-cycle use and maintenance costs while expediting the development cycle. This necessitates the extensive use of mature technology and digital design engineering. The USAF has opted for a sensible approach that minimizes risks and maximizes the benefits of digital design and engineering advancement tools.

Limited Purchase of NGADs and Loyal Wingmen

Due to the high costs associated with the NGAD program, the USAF plans to acquire only 200 next-generation air superiority fighters. This limited procurement is in contrast to the extensive purchase of F-35s. Furthermore, the USAF intends to invest in 1,000 loyal wingmen, which are unmanned aerial vehicles designed to support and complement the NGADs. This strategic shift highlights the importance of unmanned combat capabilities in future air combat scenarios.

Transformation to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The transformation of the US military’s main air combat style towards unmanned aerial vehicles is a significant development. With the introduction of loyal wingmen and the need for 1,000 such drones, the USAF is embracing a paradigm where manned fighter jets work in tandem with unmanned counterparts. This shift will redefine the dynamics of air combat and allow for greater mission flexibility and operational efficiency.

Pursuit of Stealth Performance and Cooperative Combat Capability

The sixth-generation aircraft being developed by the United States is unlikely to feature revolutionary technological innovations. Instead, the focus lies on improving stealth performance and achieving cooperative combat capabilities with loyal wingmen. The future of the US Air Force will heavily rely on drones, with NGADs leveraging robust command and control systems and stealth capabilities to enhance survivability in high-threat environments.

Uncertainties and Challenges of Sixth-Generation Aircraft

The development of sixth-generation aircraft poses significant uncertainties and challenges. Unlike fifth-generation aircraft, clear performance indicators are lacking, leading to longer development cycles. The pursuit of enhanced stealth often comes at the expense of flight speed and maneuverability, presenting technical hurdles. As a result, the United States may not deploy sixth-generation aircraft for another 15 years, providing China with a window of opportunity.

China’s Continuous Technological Advancements

China’s ability to launch improved models based on the J-20 demonstrates its continuous technological advancements. By accumulating experience and refining their platforms, China maintains a competitive edge in the air combat arena. The J-20’s strong foundation in terms of flight performance, stealth capabilities, and open architecture positions it favorably for future advancements.

The Role of Drones in Air Combat

The United States and China are on equal footing when it comes to drone development. The era of drone air combat will depend on the performance of artificial intelligence models and the numerical advantage of drones. In this regard, the US and China are likely to engage in fierce competition, with neither side gaining a definitive edge in drone production.

The US Military’s Hope on Unmanned Fighter Jets

In light of the NGAD project’s promotion, it becomes evident that the United States is placing its hopes on unmanned fighter jets to compete with the Chinese Air Force. This strategic shift indicates a race that could extend over a decade or more. With China’s established J-20 platform and a talented workforce, the US sees little hope in overtaking China’s drone development capabilities.


The battle for air supremacy between the United States and China has reached a critical juncture. The emergence of the J-20 and China’s advancements in air combat power has highlighted the limitations of the F-22 Raptor. To address these challenges, the USAF is pursuing the development of next-generation air superiority fighters through the NGAD program. However, uncertainties and China’s continuous technological progress pose significant hurdles. The race for dominance in sixth-generation aircraft and unmanned combat capabilities remains uncertain, with both countries vying for an advantage.


  1. How does China’s J-20 compare to the US F-22 Raptor? China’s J-20 has emerged as a formidable competitor to the US F-22 Raptor. It possesses advanced stealth capabilities, a strong flight performance, and an integrated kill chain system. The F-22 faces limitations in terms of modern weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and infrared search and track capabilities, putting it at a disadvantage.
  2. Why is the USAF retiring older F-22 Block 20s? The retirement of older F-22 Block 20s is due to their outdated technology, lack of modern capabilities, and high maintenance costs. These aircraft no longer provide a viable solution for maintaining air superiority against emerging threats.
  3. How many NGADs does the USAF plan to purchase? The USAF plans to acquire 200 next-generation air superiority fighters through the NGAD program. The limited purchase is attributed to the high costs involved. Additionally, the USAF aims to invest in 1,000 loyal wingmen, and unmanned aerial vehicles that support the NGADs.
  4. What are the main characteristics of the US NGAD program? The US NGAD program emphasizes the use of mature technology and digital design engineering to optimize life-cycle use and maintenance costs. It also focuses on maintaining operational and technological superiority. The acquisition process incorporates lessons learned from previous programs and aims to reduce development cycles and maintenance costs.
  5. Will unmanned fighter jets dominate the future of the US Air Force? The US Air Force is increasingly shifting towards unmanned fighter jets, particularly with the introduction of loyal wingmen. While manned fighter jets will still play a role, the cooperative combat capabilities and mission flexibility offered by unmanned systems are seen as crucial in future air combat scenarios.