The Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program—What Could Go Wrong?

The Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance Program—What Could Go Wrong?
Illustration picture shows a F35 fighter aircraft during a visit to the Lockheed Martin aerospace and defense company in Fort Worth, Texas, on Dec. 10, 2023. (Jasper Jacobs/Belga Mag via AFP)
Mike Fredenburg
Given the results of the past two “clean-sheet” design fighters, the F-22 and the F-35, it’s hard to get excited by the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation air superiority initiative.

With that said, the Air Force is in the process of selecting who will be the prime vendor for this revolutionary, cutting-edge family of systems that will include manned and unmanned aircraft and the systems to support them.

This truly will be a clean-sheet design process. And no doubt, as was the case with the F-22 and F-35, engineers, program designers, futurologists, and other experts will be working hard to imagine what the threatscape will look like 30 years from now to ensure the NGAD is prepared to meet it.

The NGAD will heavily incorporate artificial intelligence, networked sensors, and sensor fusion, and, of course, will depend on software-enabled features to grow and evolve as needs and threats evolve. It will be a system of systems.

The complexity of the NGAD’s software-enabled features and its system-of-systems approach makes those of the F-35 look like child’s play. And given that the F-35 and its supporting systems involve some 32 million lines of software coding, the much more complex NGAD system of systems could be in the vicinity of 100 million lines of code.

In concept, the NGAD will involve multiple manned aircraft, a larger number of closely tied wingman-style collaborative combat aircraft (unmanned aerial vehicles), and advanced command, control, and communication systems.

The collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) will be able to perform with the manned NGAD fighter or act autonomously. CCAs will be configured with a wide variety of weapons and/or sensor packages that will be tailored to the mission. Capability packages with which the CCAs can be configured will include advanced sensors, jamming packages, electronic warfare packages, and weapons that will enable it to execute both air-to-air combat as well as ground attack missions.

Along with flying under the control of the NGAD fighter, the CCA will also be using artificial intelligence that has yet to be developed that will provide some level of autonomous capability. According to a July 17, 2023, article in Air Force Technology, the CCA will “harness cutting-edge [read bleeding edge] disruptive technologies such as autonomy, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to maximize the safety and performance of current and future fighter fleets for agile combat employment.” And the F-35 is also projected to be able to function as a manned control node.
All of this sounds super exciting, and in August 2022, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman were each awarded 10-year, $975 million contracts to develop the propulsion for the NGAD fighter.
On May 18, 2023, the U.S. Air Force formally started the selection process for the prime contractor in the design of the NGAD sixth-generation platform, releasing a classified solicitation that provided the expected requirements to select industry defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. This NGAD contract will be awarded this year and is for developing the NGAD fighter, not the CCAs. Soon after the selection process started, Northrop Grumman bowed out of the competition.
But even before the full-on development solicitation was released in May 2023, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed that the service is planning an initial order of about 1,000 CCAs: two per each of the 200 NGAD fighters, and two for each of the 300 F-35s. As of now, the Air Force is estimating that each NGAD fighter plane could cost as much as $300 million. This puts the value of the contract at well more than $60 billion.
The Air Force is claiming that the NGAD fighter will be ready to replace the F-22 by the beginning of 2030. But is this really realistic? Does past development history for complex weapon systems give us confidence that the unprecedently complex NGAD and its system of systems can be up and running by 2030? Should we be retiring warplanes with proven combat capability based on promises that the NGAD will be ready to go sometime in 2030?
Those pushing for the retirement and likely scrapping of hundreds of fighters in order to fund the NGAD program point to the fact that an NGAD flight demonstrator flew in late 2020. Hence, the thinking goes, with a prototype having already flown three years ago, we can rest assured that the program is already far advanced and that it’s reasonable to count on it being ready in 2030.
There are a couple of issues with this line of thinking, the first being that the aircraft that flew in 2020 was only a “full-scale flight demonstrator” whose job was to demonstrate some key capabilities that will be incorporated into the NGAD fighter that has yet to be designed. Having a flight demonstrator is far, far, far away from having a working NGAD acting as the control node for CCAs, and is far, far away from having the reliable system of systems necessary to fulfill the very ambitious vision that is the NGAD program. So, despite the term “prototype” being used to describe the flight demonstrator, we don’t really even have a prototype.
But even if the aircraft that flew in late 2020 was really a prototype, it’s well to remember that building a prototype is no predictor of a program’s success. The Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program produced multiple working prototypes, yet was canceled after spending $3.3 billion of taxpayer dollars. After spending billions, the XM2001 Crusader program (155 mm self-propelled howitzer) was canceled after the production of multiple prototypes. Two RAH-66 Comanche helicopter prototypes were produced, yet the $6.9 billion produced zero combat aircraft. The first F-35 prototype, the X-35, first flew in October 2000, and more than 20 years later, the $183 billion over budget, problem-ridden F-35 program hasn’t yet produced a plane capable of passing the same kind of operational testing that the F-16, the F/A-18, the F-15, the F-22, and every other combat plane passed before being cleared for full-rate production.

None of the above programs, including the F-35, are anywhere near as complex as the NGAD program. Consequently, we shouldn’t place too much stock in the fact the flight demonstrator vehicle was able to complete some test flights a few years ago as being indicative that this extraordinarily ambitious program will be producing combat-capable NGAD fighters by the start of 2030. And we shouldn’t be permanently retiring combat-capable aircraft to fund a program that’s many times more technologically risky than the F-35.

The NGAD vision has merit, but instead of destroying current combat capability to fund a program unlikely to produce combat capability by 2030, the program should be funded at a much more measured pace. Only when a limited deployment of an NGAD system of systems demonstrates affordable, reliable, high sortie generation rate combat capabilities in a real battlespace superior to that of existing warplanes should those existing warplanes start to be phased out.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Mike Fredenburg writes on military technology and defense matters with an emphasis on defense reform. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and master's degree in production operations management.
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