As China and Russia forge ahead with a slew of sixth-generation fighter projects, is the U.S. Air Force (USAF) lagging behind in efforts to develop similar capabilities?
The U.S. military’s nascent sixth-generation fighter ambitions harken back to the late 2000s, just as Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II was entering a turbulent testing and production stage. Launched in 2008, the F/A-XX program identified a need for a new air superiority fighter platform to replace the Navy’s aging stock F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The Pentagon initially sought to procure a single consolidated platform for both the Navy and Air Force but, given the poor track record of prior joint projects, eventually decided against it. The F/A-XX has since become the Navy’s sixth generation fighter program, while the USAF equivalent is currently known under the broader Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) umbrella.
The next major milestone came in the form of USAF’s “Air Superiority 2030” study. The paper proposed radical change in procurement mindset: “the Air Force must reject thinking focused on “next generation” platforms,” it reads. Whereas China and Russia are focused on churning out cutting-edge bombers and fighters with best-in-class performance and capabilities, the Air Superiority 2030 report argues that USAF must instead build up an “integrated network of air, space, and cyberspace-based sensors, as well as leverage joint contributions from all domains.” This is a more sustainable growth strategy, states the paper, because it avoids the cost overruns and cyclical delays that stem from pushing the technological limits of a single “next-generation” fighter platform. Instead, the idea is to spread the innovation across numerous platforms within a larger unified system. According to this vision of the future, USAF’s NGAD platform is shaping up to be an ultra-stealthy, long-range fighter that takes the F-35’s “quarterback in the sky” concept to the next level. Boasting the latest in sensor fusion and artificial intelligence (AI) technology, the fighter will be a central coordinating piece in a larger network of interlinked drones, sensors, and fighters.
Concrete performance details remain sparse and are liable to change as the fighter evolves from a prototype to a serial production model, but there are some noteworthy design concepts. It appears that the next generation of U.S. fighters will boast a new suite of stealth features to counteract the latest Russian and Chinese missile and air defense systems, including improved stealth performance against low frequency radars. Prior reports have suggested that some U.S. NGAD models could be armed with not only hypersonic weapons, but also air-to-air lasers. As part of USAF’s larger plan for interlinked platforms, the new fighters may also boast an unprecedented degree of mission integration with a wide range of drones.
The Air Force revealed last year that they had already flown a full-scale NGAD demonstrator model, but did not divulge any additional information on either the fighter or its research, development, and production timeline. USAF’s FY 2021 budget calls for roughly $1 billion in NGAD funding, and will reportedly cost an additional $6.5 billion through 2025. Meanwhile, the Navy’s next-generation F/A-XX fighter remains almost completely shrouded in mystery. It was reported in 2020 that work is underway to field a Super Hornet replacement by 2030, but the Navy’s current procurement progress remains unclear.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.