The U.S. Air Force’s secret Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program slated to replace aging, mass-produced fighters has progressed from an experimental concept into development and could be operational by the end of the decade, according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
Speaking at an event at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, Kendall addressed Air Force priorities at a time when China is rapidly modernizing its military capabilities.
“China is not just trying to develop the capability to defeat the things we have today, they’re thinking about the things they expect us to have tomorrow,” Kendall said. As part of its modernization effort, China is focused on building capabilities that target U.S. satellites, aircraft carriers and forward air bases, he said.
“The pacing challenge is clearly China,” he added.
Looking to the future, the Air Force is fully embracing the concept of pairing unmanned air combat platforms with piloted aircraft, such as the sixth-generation fighter and the B-21 Raider bomber, as a cost-effective way to build mass.
“One of the problems that we’re dealing with here is that all the things that we happen to be buying right now or plan to buy in the near future that are manned platforms are very expensive,” he said. “The F-35 and the F-15EX cost about the same. NGAD will cost much more than that, and the B-21will cost even more than that,” he said. “To have an affordable Air Force of any reasonable size, we’ve got to introduce some lower-cost platforms.” The NGAD program, which began in 2015 as an experimental prototype, has progressed to development, Kendall confirmed.
NGAD will include a sixth-generation fighter, as well as combat drones, weapons and sensors.
“It’s not just about a platform,” he said. “It’s about what we call a family of systems that are associated with tactical air. Part of that family of systems is going to be uncrewed combat aircraft,” he said.
“We have now started on the [engineering, manufacturing and development] program to do the development aircraft that we’re going to take into production,” Kendall said. “We think we’ll have the capability by the end of the decade.”
The B-21, the Air Force’s new stealth bomber, is set to emerge much sooner. The aircraft has successfully completed load-calibration testing and is on track to take its first flight next year, Northrop Grumman announced recently.
Northrop Grumman said the B-21 is “making strides toward flight readiness” and “remains on-schedule” for the first flight projected for 2023.
Earlier this year, however, the Air Force indicated that the six B-21 aircraft in production would roll out in 2022, with the first bombers likely in the air quickly thereafter.
“It’s doing reasonably well in development and we are headed into production on that,” Kendall said.
When asked Wednesday if the bomber would take flight before the end of the year, Kendall would not say.
“I don’t think I can answer that,” he said.