Allvin Hedges on the Future of Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter

The Air Force’s Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter faces an uncertain future in the fiscal 2026 budget, Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin suggested June 13 during an AFA Warfighters in Action event.

Allvin also said the Air Force doesn’t plan on keeping individual Collaborative Combat Aircraft in service very long, preferring to rapidly shift to future iterations of the autonomous drones.

In response to a question from Air & Space Forces Magazine, Allvin said moving ahead with NGAD is merely one of many “choices” USAF will have to make in the coming years as it balances a host of modernization priorities with limited budgets. He did not describe NGAD as a must-have, as the service has done previously.

While Congress is still debating fiscal 2025 defense funding, the Pentagon has already started work on the 2026 budget. The Air Force in particular must consider how to fund soaring costs on the new Sentinel ICBM, further work on the B-21 bomber, F-35 procurement, and more, all while dealing with congressional budget caps, inflation, and other drags on resources.

Considering all that, Allvin was asked if NGAD is still affordable or whether the program will have to be re-cast every couple of years to keep up with the threat.

 “We’re going to have to make those choices, make those decisions across the landscape,” he said. “That’s going to probably play out in the next couple years or by this ’26 [program objective memorandum] cycle. So those are things in work.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said a year ago that the service would award the NGAD contract in 2024, with a single company chosen to develop the jet. After Northrop Grumman said it would not bid on the program, the competition is likely between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

NGAD may be vulnerable because while the Air Force has contractors set to develop or build its other top priorities—the B-21, Collaborative Combat Aircraft, the F-35, the KC-46, etc.—there is no contractor or constituency for the new and highly expensive fighter.

With budgets getting tightened across the board, services have had to make tough choices. The Navy already decided in its fiscal 2025 budget request to indefinitely defer its version of NGAD, which it calls the F/A-XX.

The Air Force’s NGAD has been projected to replace the F-22 circa 2030, with the capability to achieve air superiority against worsening foreign air threats and enemy air defense systems. Kendall has said the manned fighter element of NGAD could cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars per airframe, and that the Air Force would likely buy about 200 of them.

NGAD is usually described as a “family of systems,” including the crewed aircraft; autonomous, uncrewed escorts; and other disaggregated capabilities. Collaborative Combat Aircraft is considered part of that family of systems, and is in fact funded in the same program element as NGAD.


While Allvin was noncommittal about the future of NGAD, he laid out a more fulsome vision for Collaborative Combat Aircraft and made clear that the autonomous drones would not serve for long periods and require sustainment similar to crewed aircraft.

Instead, he hinted CCAs will have a service life of about a decade or less.

“I don’t want a set of Collaborative Combat Aircraft that’s going to last for 25-30 years,” Allvin said. “Because what comes with that? Well, if it’s going to last 25-30 years, it’s got to do everything but make the toast in the morning.”

That in turn would make each aircraft more expensive and reduce the number that can be bought with the available funds, creating a “spiral” of reduced airframes and rising costs, Allvin warned.

“‘Built to last’ is a tremendous 20th-century bumper sticker, and the assumption then was, whatever you had was relevant as long as it lasts,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s true anymore.”

After 10 years of service, a CCA “won’t be as relevant,” he said, but “it might be adaptable, and that’s why we’re building in the modularity, that adaptability.”

The Air Force is making “big bets on … human-machine teaming. I think that’s a safe bet,” Allvin added. He said artificial intelligence and autonomy will most likely help rather than replace human operators, and gave as an example that machines will be able to sense if an F-35 pilot controlling six CCAs is over-stressed or too tired to remain effective.  

New platforms will also have to be multi-capable and adaptable as missions evolve, he said. Developing a platform that can only perform one mission means “we’re failing,” he said.

More broadly, Air & Space Forces Magazine asked Allvin if resource constraints will compel the Air Force to change the way it fights—shifting to a standoff force, for example. Allvin said these are issues he thinks about “every night” and “we do have to ask those fundamental questions.”

“What does an effective Air Force look like in the future? And how much of that is dependent on external resources?” he asked. “Some of that we can control. The resources [part] is very tough. We can advocate for more resources.”

Allvin said it’s incumbent on him to ensure “we aren’t perpetuating a structure, perpetuating a set of processes” that will keep the service in an outdated structure of acquiring new capabilities. It must be endlessly flexible enough to abandon programs if they are quickly overtaken by events.

“We cannot pursue a lot of eggs in one basket, and then find that the threat has advanced,” he said.

It would be self-defeating if “we don’t have a way to jump, that we can’t pivot” to other capabilities, he said. “And those are the things we need to watch out for as we go forward. And I think there will be areas of risk.”

The Air Force’s budget deliberations are seeking to balance “the risk today versus the risk of tomorrow, modernization versus the readiness of today. Those are all things we are trying to balance and yes, ’26, it’s very, very thin across the board.”

At the end of the day, he added, all he can control is getting the service “on the path and make a legitimate case that the Air Force is optimizing…for what’s right for the environment today and into the future.”