US “Re-Evaluates” 6th-Gen Fighter Program Over Soaring Costs; Air Force Boss Says NGAD Not Dead Yet

In a startling disclosure, the US Air Force (USAF) is re-evaluating its sixth-generation ‘Next Generation Air Dominance’ program due to its high costs and the need to prioritize resources for other important programs.

Russian Navy Lands In US Backyard Again; After Nuke Submarine, Its ‘Hypersonic Warship’ Arrives In Venezuela

Recent reports have indicated that the USAF is re-examining the specifications for a new crewed sixth-generation stealth combat fighter it is developing as part of the wider Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

A major objective is to find ways to reduce the jets’ expenses, which might be up to $250 million per unit.

The reports that the US might eventually have to abandon the program generated a lot of frenzy, especially since the US has remained steadfast in its commitment to develop a next-generation aircraft ahead of its adversaries.

Finally, putting all speculations to rest, USAF Secretary Frank Kendall reassured in an interview with Defense News that the service was working on creating an advanced next-generation fighter, but a redesign is needed to control expenses and enhance the integration of loyal wingman drones.

Additionally, Secretary Frank Kendall stated that to keep costs down, the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter aircraft may wind up with a simpler, smaller engine than planned.

“The family of systems concept of Next Generation Air Dominance is alive and well,” Kendall said. “I can tell you that we are looking at the NGAD platform design concept to see if it’s the right concept or not…We’re looking at whether we can do something less expensive and do some trade-offs there.”

Another major goal of the NGAD combat jet program’s re-evaluation is to guarantee that these aircraft will be able to cooperate with the service’s planned fleets of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones.

“It’s a very expensive platform,” Kendall said. “It’s three times, roughly, the cost of an F-35, and we can only afford it in small numbers.” Kendall had previously told the media that the NGAD jets would cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars.”

He said the estimated cost of NGAD is currently three times higher than that of a single F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Since F-35s typically range in cost from $80 to $100 million each, the total cost of NGAD could approach $300 million per aircraft, potentially limiting the size of its fleet.

Kendall said, “The design concept that came out of that [initiative] is a very expensive concept. Scale matters, numbers matter, and so does time. We want to get something there quickly.”

The disclosure has surprised military watchers since it is widely believed that the USAF has been secretly working on a next-generation stealth fighter under the NGAD program for several years now. The USAF had previously suggested that it would begin receiving the latest and most advanced fighter jet by the 2030s. Two hundred NGAD fighters were originally planned to be delivered, but now that plan seems to be falling apart.

Trouble started brewing when USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin hinted last month that as part of the US government’s budget for 2026, military chiefs would advise reorganizing, postponing, or even ending the NGAD program. Recently, the US has discontinued several other high-stakes programs, including the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

The USAF is facing challenges in staying within its $200 billion budget while also needing to invest in other important systems, such as the B-21 Raider bomber, which is a top priority as it prepares for potential combat with countries like China.

An artist’s conception of an advanced sixth-generation combat jet. Collins Aerospace

NGAD Runs Into Uncertainty

The NGAD has been envisioned as a “system of systems” that will include unmanned drones, manned jets, and a new generation of networking technologies along with new lethal munitions, advanced sensors, more powerful engines, an electronic warfare suite, and battle management capability.

The USAF’s dithering on the crewed aircraft and the NGAD has also cast doubts about these capabilities in the scaled-down (revamped, less complex, and with a smaller engine) next-generation aircraft.

Russia’s Su-57 Back In Reckoning For Indian Air Force; Modi, Putin Likely To Discuss Stealth Fighters For IAF

More importantly, the NGAD is designed to replace the F-22 Raptor as the first operational stealth fighter and maintain the USAF’s air power advantage against rapidly advancing air defense and technology.

The NGAD fighter jet fleet, totaling around 200 aircraft, is about the same as the current USAF F-22 Raptor fleet, which is planned to be retired, suggesting that the NGAD will take over. This raises questions about the future of the F-22 Raptors, set to be retired by the 2030s.

Writing for The Telegraph, David Axe noted: “It’s a startling development for advocates of American air power. For generations, the US military – not to mention the militaries of America’s closest allies – have depended on the US Air Force to achieve air superiority against even the most determined and sophisticated foe, affording freedom of action for troops on the ground and ships at sea.”

Credits: F-22 Demonstration Team

A rethink of the NGAD also makes the CCA look uncertain, considering that they have often been projected together in an ambitious manned-unmanned team. “Having something that’s optimized to work with CCAs is another consideration as we look at NGAD,” Kendall noted when referring to the Collaborative Combat Aircraft.

Kendall announced in March last year that the USAF planned to purchase 1,000 CCA drones specifically to be used in tandem with the upcoming sixth-generation stealth plane and the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II. “This figure was derived from an assumed two CCAs per 200 NGAD platforms and an additional two for each of 300 F-35s for a total of 1,000,” Kendall explained during a keynote address at the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium.

On its part, the USAF has maintained that the crewed fighter component and highly autonomous advanced drones of the NGAD program are the fundamental pillars of its future force structure to deter and address modern threats.

A screenshot of what can be considered a sketch of the NGAD from the Lockheed Martin promotional video. Source: YouTube/Lockheed Martin

“The DAF [Department of the Air Force] is moving forward with a family of systems for the next generation of air dominance,” Kendall said in his speech. “That will include both an NGAD platform and the introduction of uncrewed collaborative aircraft to provide affordable mass and dramatically increased cost-effectiveness.”

Though there is uncertainty regarding the future of the USAF’s air superiority goals and sixth-generation aircraft, Secretary Kendall affirms that the NGAD program remains stable. Even so, experts and observers are sounding alarm bells, warning that the development of a new sixth-generation stealthy combat aircraft could have broader consequences given the ongoing threat from adversaries.