NGAD: America's New 6th Generation Fighter Is Not What You Think

NGAD Fighter Artist Rendering

NGAD: America's New 6th Generation Fighter Is Not What You Think

The U.S. Air Force is making strides with its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, a family of systems designed to ensure continued air superiority.

Summary: The U.S. Air Force is making strides with its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, a family of systems designed to ensure continued air superiority. The fighter plane will include some surprises. 

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Key Points: 

-Among those possible surprises, the program includes the development of a sixth-generation fighter jet and Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones, also known as "loyal wingmen," to support the fighter's mission.

-Anduril and General Atomics have been selected to develop these crucial drones, which are expected to be more affordable and provide additional capabilities. While much about the NGAD remains classified, the program is a top priority amidst global competition to develop the next generation of fighter aircraft.

NGAD vs. The World: Unveiling America's Secret Weapon

The U.S. Air Force is making progress on the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD, to develop its latest fighter aircraft. 

In April, the service awarded two companies the funding to develop and test the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones that will fly alongside the sixth-generation fighter jet. These loyal wingmen drones are a critical component of NGAD, which is expected to operate as a family of systems in the air. 

Anduril and General Atomics were selected to participate in the next phase of the CCA program.

Upon this announcement, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall noted that, “We [the Air Force] executed an acquisition and funding strategy for CCA with early operator, technologist, acquirer, and industry teaming to quickly iterate requirements given our fielding timelines. Continuous competition is a cornerstone at every stage of this program. The transparency and teamwork between industry and government really accelerated how quickly we could mature the CCA program.”

Introducing NGAD, a New 6th Generation Fighter 

As Washington and Beijing race to introduce the world’s first sixth-generation fighter platform, speeding the NGAD’s path to service is a top priority for the United States. 

The Air Force’s sixth-generation program originated a decade ago from DARPA studies exploring future air superiority systems. With China’s aerial capabilities rapidly advancing, the NGAD program sought to develop the technologies key to maintaining the Air Force’s dominance. Targeted technologies include stealth, advanced weapons, propulsion, and digital design. 

What We Know About the NGAD Program and Why This Fighter Jet Matters 

Much about the program is classified. But in 2023, Lockheed Martin released a series of artist renderings of the NGAD fighter. The sleek and tailless aircraft is shown refueling from Lockheed’s LMXT tanker concept, which the image is also clearly promoting. Based on these renderings, then, the NGAD will possess aerial refueling capabilities.

The CCA drones have been described as remotely controlled versions of electronic warfare or targeting pods positioned under the wings of existing fighter jets. As detailed by Kendall, “The expectation is that these [unmanned] aircraft can be designed to be less survivable and less capable, but still bring an awful lot to the fight in a mixture that the enemy has a very hard time sorting out and dealing with,” adding that “you can even intentionally sacrifice some of them to draw fire, if you will, to make the enemy expose himself.”

The CCAs will also serve another purpose for the Air Force – that of lowering the overall cost of the NGAD program. Since a single sixth-generation fighter jet is expected to come with a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars, the comparably low cost of the CCAs will help balance out expenses. According to Kendall, the cost associated with each UAV would be somewhere between one-quarter and one-half that of an F-35 fighter. The lower price tag attached to these drones would help the Navy “create mass” with an abundance of CCAs to combat China’s comparably larger fleet.

The PRC’s 'NGAD' Sixth-Generation Program

As the Air Force plans NGAD, China is working to develop its own counterpart. China’s sixth-generation aircraft was featured in engineering concept reports in 2021, and a mockup appeared at the Zhuhai expo in 2022. 

The Chinese fighter is also expected to fly alongside UAVs that will enhance situational awareness and add firepower. Analysts also predict that the sixth-generation program will focus on AI integration, stealth, and advanced aerodynamics. However, little information about the fighter has been released publicly. How China’s next-generation fighter will match up against the NGAD has yet to be determined.

NGAD Photo Gallery 

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About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

Main image is Creative Commons, as are all other images.