Is the U.S. Air Force's NGAD Fighters and B-21 Bombers Worth the Cost?

NGAD
May 28, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: B-21B-21 RaiderMilitaryDefenseNGADU.S. Air Force

Is the U.S. Air Force's NGAD Fighters and B-21 Bombers Worth the Cost?

The U.S. Air Force is pushing for modernization through programs like the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and the B-21 stealth bomber.

 

Summary: The U.S. Air Force is pushing for modernization through programs like the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and the B-21 stealth bomber.

NGAD

 

-Despite already possessing the most advanced air force, the Air Force is focused on maintaining its edge, particularly against China. NGAD and B-21 will offer enhanced capabilities, but come with high costs.

-Factors like the need to counter adversary advancements, aging airframes, and the push for sixth-generation technology justify these investments.

-A leaner force could encourage more strategic deployment, but the U.S. remains the leader in air power.

NGAD and B-21: Essential Upgrades or Unnecessary Expenses?

The U.S. Air Force is pressing for fleet modernizations with paranoid urgency. Foremost among its efforts are the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program, or NGAD, and the B-21 stealth bomber. 

NGAD

The USAF is already the most advanced and well-equipped air force in the world. Can it afford the cost of updating its roster with newer, better aircraft? And to what extent is this even necessary for maintaining an edge in great power competition?

What’s Next?

The Air Force is moving to develop a sixth-generation fighter. No military on Earth currently commandeers such an asset. Only three air forces even possess fifth-generation technology. But the NGAD promises to be more advanced than fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 and F-35, which hold the standard as the best fighter jets in the world. 

In addition to fifth-generation features like supercruise, thrust vectoring, and internal weapons bays, the NGAD will likely feature enhanced sensor fusion, drone integration, data connectivity, enhanced stealth, and perhaps futuristic weaponry. Each unit is expected to cost a few hundred million dollars. 

The B-21 is undergoing test flights and is expected to join the service before 2030. Billed as a replacement for the B-2 Spirit, the B-21 is another flying wing stealth bomber. Hopefully the B-21 will not cost as much per unit as the B-2, which costs a hard-to-comprehend $2 billion per airframe. But don’t expect the B-21 to be cheap.

B-21 Raider

Can the U.S. afford to develop and purchase the NGAD and B-21? It seems the decision has already been made – both airframes are under development. And sure, the U.S. will be able to technically afford the aircraft. It’s just a matter of priorities. Resources are finite, meaning money spent on the NGAD and B-21 will not be spent elsewhere.

B-21 Raider and NGAD Fighter - Worth the Expense?

With the NGAD and B-21 in the rotation, the U.S. will have the world’s most advanced air force. The advantages of this are obvious, in terms of deterrence and in terms of capacity. The U.S. would do well to stay ahead of potential adversaries, especially China.

But the U.S. already flies the world’s most advanced air force. The F-22 is the world’s most advanced air superiority fighter, while the F-35 is the world’s leading aircraft with respect to sensor fusion and data interconnectivity. The B-2, although outdated, is the world’s only stealth bomber. The A-10 Warthog is the most capable close air support aircraft in the world. Fourth-generation aircraft like the F-15 and F-16 would be the jewel of your average air force’s inventory. 

With such an enviable roster of airframes, does the Air Force need to invest so much toward upgrades? 

A number of factors favor an affirmative answer. First, a lack of stealth features makes many current designs incapable of surviving in contested airspace. Further, many airframes are pushing their expiration date and will need to be replaced. Of course, planners need to counter China’s and Russia’s own pushes to upgrade. Finally, allied nations are working to develop sixth-generation technology first.

B-21 Raider Bomber

Yet perhaps the Air Force can afford to lose a few airframes. A svelter force would inspire some much-needed restraint when choosing how to deploy Air Force planes. Either way, with or without the upgraded platforms, the United States has the world’s most elite air force.

About the Author: Harrison Kass 

Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with over 1,000 total pieces on issues involving global affairs. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.

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