ontrol of the air is the Air Force’s top core competency, but as its premier fighters age, its ability to perform that mission in the future is increasingly in question. By 2030, the Air Force anticipates its F-22 Raptors will no longer be sufficiently survivable in contested air space, potentially leaving the joint force vulnerable to air attack. To stay well ahead of China’s J-20 and other adversary aircraft, as well as increasingly sophisticated ground-based air defenses around the world, a follow-on air superiority fighter is urgently needed.
The Air Force has invested more than $2.5 billion since 2018 to develop that successor: the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems. By 2025, that number will have grown to at least $9 billion. While still highly classified, the Air Force has gradually begun to reveal limited details about NGAD, which it describes as a “family of systems” that will collaboratively gain air dominance in combat. The NGAD family will include at least one crewed aircraft and an undisclosed number of uncrewed aircraft, along with other technologies that could include optionally crewed platforms, missiles, pods, and offboard capabilities, some of which could operate from space. Some flying escorts will carry sensors or more weapons, while others will provide electronic or ground attack capabilities so that NGAD can get through enemy defenses to hold at risk any target in the battlespace.
We can’t modernize our way out of the problem … just using an updated F-22.
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for Air Force futures
A year ago, when Air Force leaders unveiled their “4+1” plan for the fighter force of the late 2020s and 2030s, many were stunned to learn it called for phasing out the F-22. The No. 1 element of that plan identified the “F-22, transitioning to NGAD.”
Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for Air Force futures (formerly strategy, integration, and requirements), told Air Force Magazine last May that the F-22 is coming up on 20 years of operational service, and is suffering from parts obsolescence and “limitations” that “we can’t modernize our way out of.”
Advanced sensors in the hands of adversaries are starting to overcome the F-22’s radar-evading stealth characteristics. Retrofitting the Raptors 1990s—and even late 1980s—design with new materials or active measures will only extend it so far. New sensors, funded at $344 million in fiscal 2023, will help it bridge to NGAD. “This is not an area … where we feel we can take a lot of risk,” Hinote said.
With a looming “large … commitment” to NGAD in the fiscal 2023 budget, the Air Force began talking more about it over the past year. Its fiscal 2022 request for NGAD was $1.525 billion, and for fiscal 2023 that rises to $1.658 billion. To fund it, Air Force leaders are willing to sacrifice existing force structure, including some of the oldest F-22s, next year.
NGAD first appeared in the 2018 budget as a $295 million line item; the following year the “Air Superiority Family of Systems” called for $430 million.
In Its fiscal 2022 budget rationale, the Air Force said NGAD “ensures we maintain air superiority in the future by introducing game-changing technology now.” NGAD is “not a single platform—USAF is focused on fielding capabilities to mitigate identified gaps, not on creating a ‘next generation’ aircraft.”
But at least one part of the NGAD family will be a manned aircraft that will be accompanied by unmanned escorts. Former USAF acquisition executive Will Roper revealed in September 2020 that an NGAD “full-scale flight demonstrator” had already flown, adding coyly that it had “broken a lot of records.” He told reporters later that he had fought to make that revelation to reassure the Air Force community that the service’s embrace of digital engineering was delivering “real things in the real world.”
Roper’s concept for NGAD was to draw both traditional prime contractors as well as startups to compete; new aircraft didn’t necessarily have to be built by the companies that designed them. Roper envisaged short production runs of 50 to 100 airplanes, each succeeded in close order by another more advanced design, with new types developed roughly every five years. This development frequency would replace the “winner-take-all” competitions that characterized the F-22 and F-35 programs with a more iterative, rapid development cycle to slash the Air Force’s technology refresh rate from decades to years. The approach, which the Air Force has not abandoned, meshes well with Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s admonition to the service to “Accelerate Change … or Lose.”
“The announcement isn’t that we just built an ‘e-plane’ and have flown it a lot of times in a virtual world, which we’ve done” Roper said at the time. “But we built a full-scale flight demonstrator, and we flew it in the real world.”
Hinote, in the May 2021 interview, said he’s been “surprised at how well [NGAD] is doing.” He said he’s escorted cleared members of Congress to see the aircraft, and that they came away “impressed.” While “we still have to make it real,” he said, “there’s a lot to do in the program” and the test pilots flying the NGAD demonstrator gave it high marks.
Hinote did not offer a timeline for NGAD’s introduction, but referred to some elements of the system as “optionally manned.” NGAD will not replace the F-22 “one-for-one,” he said.
Given that there are 185 F-22s, Hinote’s characterization fits with Roper’s plan to only buy 100 or fewer of the first NGAD before moving on to its successor.
While Hinote could not “confirm or deny” that the second NGAD is already in development, he said the fast-turn sequential developments will allow “the great companies of our industrial base to reenter the competition at the design phase, as opposed to crowding them out in the sustainability phase.”
One of the key aspects of Roper’s vision for NGAD was that it would not be built to last 30 to 40 years, but rather live a shorter operational life in which it is introduced, operated, and retired inside 12 to15 years. “This approach shifts funding emphasis from sustainment—typically, 70 percent of a weapon system’s cost—to design and procurement. The old model ensures that vendors make most of their money sustaining aircraft, rather than creating them; Roper wanted to turn that model on its head. Parts obsolescence afflicts nearly every legacy system in the Air Force today. NGAD, Hinote said, is aimed at eliminating “vendor lock,” where the original manufacturer controls sustainment and has an incentive to perpetuate upgrades and maintenance over creating new programs.
By contrast, NGAD will perpetually roll out hardware and software enhancements, with each iteration aiming to “jump over” the prior one. Roper had hoped that these generational advances would come every five to eight years.
Just as the F-22 was equipped to attack ground targets, NGAD will as well. In June 2021, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. told the House Armed Services Committee that NGAD will have “some air-to-ground capability to ensure, one, that it can survive, but also to provide options for our air component commanders and for the joint force.”
Based on senior Air Force leader comments and generic industry information, it’s possible to bound some of the NGAD’s characteristics.
The primary aircraft of NGAD is likely to fly at least as high and fast as the F-22, meaning an upper ceiling of about 65,000 to 70,000 feet and a top speed of about Mach 2.8. The F-22 was designed for extreme maneuverability, but the Air Force hasn’t divulged whether NGAD needs to be capable of engaging in a tight-turning dogfight. Given the accuracy of advanced sensors and missiles—the F-35, for example, can shoot a missile at a fighter to its rear—the NGAD may forgo extreme maneuverability in favor of larger internal fuel tanks and a heavier weapons payload.
Former Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle speculated in 2017 that the “Penetrating Combat Aircraft” that is believed to have evolved into NGAD could be something like the B-21 bomber, equipped with large wings and big fuel tanks for the long ranges of the Pacific theater and a greater magazine capacity for more shots.
In March, as the budget was being revealed, Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said the Air Force traditionally focused on Europe and Russia in developing fighter aircraft, but NGAD will be different: “We’ve never developed a fighter with the ranges of the Pacific in mind before,” he said in an Air Force Magazine interview. “So this would be a first.”
Other service leaders have said recently that there could be two versions of NGAD, one optimized for the Pacific theater’s long-range requirements and another for the more compact European theater.
Service officials have kept largely mum about how stealthy the NGAD will have to be. Some have suggested that speed could be traded for stealth, if the speed of the aircraft was such that by the time it was spotted, a defender wouldn’t have enough time to engage it with missiles.
On the other hand, leaders have sounded greater alarm in recent years that China may be able to detect America’s fifth-generation aircraft. ACC Commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly often says stealth “does not mean invisibility,” and that stealth aircraft will be detectable at certain ranges, requiring close-in electronic jamming for protection.
Industry sources say NGAD will be “orders of magnitiude” harder to detect than even the fifth-generation fighters of today, with the same radar cross section as a BB shot. It will also be stealthier in many different bandwidths, rather than optimized against a few key bands of search-and-track radars.
In recent months, F-22s, F-35s, and even older F-117s have been spotted and photographed wearing unusual shiny metallic panels; in some case, over the entire aircraft. The Air Force will not disclose the purpose, but it is likely they are testing potential upgrades for fifth-generation fighters or perhaps a new kind of stealth treatment for NGAD.
Air Force officials spoke openly in the mid-2010s about a possible jamming escort for the next-generation fighter, to be called the Penetrating Electronic Attack aircraft, or PEA. They’ve stopped discussing it, but a jamming escort is certainly one of the NGAD “family.”
Today’s fifth-generation fighters use Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars that hop frequencies very rapidly, to diminish the amount of time their electronic emissions can be spotted and tracked. NGAD may dispense with an AESA on the manned fighter and rely on escort aircraft to provide that function, which would make the manned platform harder to detect.
The NGAD will also certainly have an infrared search-and-track system to identify enemy stealth aircraft by their heat signatures. An IRST is one of the sensor upgrades planned for the F-22, which has been seen lately flying with slender, stealthy-looking pods on its outer wings. The Air Force will not discuss the pods, which appear to have a dielectric transparency at the front.
NGAD aircraft will have to penetrate deep inside enemy territory and operate there, far from tanker support. To do that, it will need both capacious internal fuel tanks and the ability to use that fuel sparingly. Since 2007, the Air Force has invested billions in the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP), developing powerplants with greater thrust and fuel efficiency. They can adapt to mission conditions demanding either more “turn and burn” kinematic performance, or sip fuel for persistence. Other new technologies involve additive printing of parts, adaptive seals, and high-temperature ceramics to allow the engine to run hotter than today’s turbofans.
There are two AETP engines, GE Aviation’s XA100 and Pratt & Whitney’s XA101. Both progressed to the testing phase last fall, and both will undergo durability and other testing over the next two years. Both companies said they’ve met the Air Force’s goals: extending range by 25 to 30 percent and improving acceleration by 18 percent. To this: The AETP engines were meant to generate 45,000 pounds of thrust. They will also be able to pump more electricity to electronic warfare systems or directed-energy weapons than today’s fighter engines can.
Although the contractors won’t discuss how, both also say their AETP engines make an aircraft stealthier, presumably by reducing their heat signature.
Air Force and industry officials say the AETP program was always aimed at NGAD. After testing and tweaking, the AETP engines are expected to be available for production around 2027, just in time to equip the first production-representative NGAD test aircraft. Meanwhile, the Air Force is also contemplating applying such technology to power the Block 4 version of the F-35 fighter.
Asked how AETP fared in the fiscal 2023 budget request, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said, “We’re continuing the R&D,” but he added, “The cost of development of a new engine is pretty significant. … We’re looking for partnerships [with] the other services to be able to afford that going forward.” Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, has said that under the multinational F-35 partnership rules, “you have to pay to be different,” and if the Air Force wants to put a nonstandard engine on its F-35As, it would have to cover the cost of development and production on its own dime. The Air Force trebled its fiscal 2023 funding request for AETP versus FY’22, to $354 million.
The Navy has its own NGAD-like program, and Pentagon officials have long said it will almost certainly use the same AETP engines the Air Force is developing.
AIM. The main weapon for the NGAD is most likely to be the AIM-260A Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, or JATM, now under development by Lockheed Martin. First revealed at an Air Force industry conference in 2019, the JATM is meant to counter China’s long-range PL-15 air-to-air missile, and restore to the U.S. a monopoly on “first shot, first kill” in dogfighting. ACC’s Kelly told an AFA conference last September that USAF needs “fifth-generation weapons” to arm its fifth-generation aircraft.
Today’s weapons negate the advantages of stealth, he suggested. “If we push [stealth aircraft] into ranges where everyone is observable,” there’s no point in having a stealth force, Kelly said. China’s PL-15 has a range of about 80 miles, so the AIM-260’s range will likely be considerably greater. The JATM “gets us there,” Kelly said.
In order to remain stealthy, the F-22 will have to carry the JATM internally, which suggests the missile’s dimensions must be about the same as that of the AIM-120A AMRAAM, the F-22’s primary weapon today.
The JATM is likely to have a multimode seeker including both infrared and millimeter wave radar. While AMRAAM is still a good missile, Kelly said, “we’ve squeezed most all we can” out of it. The Air Force has been testing JATM at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., ranges, and the fact that it hasn’t been spotted and photographed by airplane enthusiasts there may indicate that it bears a close resemblance to AMRAAM. That suggests Lockheed Martin has managed to miniaturize components in order to add more propellant. It may be a hittile, striking its target directly rather than using a blast-fragmentation warhead. That too could free up space for propellant.
MAM: The Modular Advanced Missile is another highly classified system due to undergo “kinematic tests” from a fighter in 2023, according to Air Force budget documents. The weapon likely features interchangeable warheads and seekers, potentially usable as either an air-to-air or air-to-ground missile. It may also have a “stackable” and modular propellant system to give it longer range.
LREW and LRAAM: The Long-Range Engagement Weapon, being developed by Raytheon, and the Long Range Air-to-Air Missile, being developed by Boeing, might actually be the MAM, since both are modular in the sense that extra propulsion segments can be added to the missile to increase range.
Peregrine and Cuda: The Peregrine, developed by Raytheon with its own funds and announced by the company in 2019, is half the size of AMRAAM, but faster and able to travel farther, the company says. Being smaller, but with roughly the same capabilities as AMRAAM, it might be ideal for the escort aircraft in the NGAD “family” of systems, adding to the weapons NGAD can bring to bear. Lockheed Martin’s Cuda is about the same size, but with a unique control system, and was Lockheed’s answer to the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile project run by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Some of these missiles may be planned for a later incarnation of NGAD or its successor. Kelly, at the AFA Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September 2021, said “we can’t, sequentially, heel-to-toe, start working on Problem A and not even eyeball Problem B. We’ve got to keep looking forward.” Kelly noted that China begins the successor to its new systems even before they are fielded.
Hypersonics: Hypersonic weapons are not necessarily just for striking ground targets. Senior Pentagon officials have been promoting air-breathing hypersonic systems as the vehicle for future air-to-air weapons for more than a decade. Kelly said hypersonics can “shorten that time of flight” from a shooter to the target aircraft, but “we just have to make sure we can reach out and touch [an enemy] at a range that is equal to or exceeds their ability to reach out and touch us.”
Directed Energy: Although the Air Force today can only muster laser systems capable of generating about 150 kw of focused power with the Self-protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program—this pod is not the final answer. Industry sources have said USAF intends to make laser systems part of the regular complement of future air combat systems, at a minimum to protect aircraft against incoming missiles, by blinding or frying their seekers.
Now retired, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in 2019 that NGAD will be comprised of “five key technologies” that would not all “come together on a single platform” and would not all mature simultaneously. Goldfein did not enumerate the five technologies, but he later alluded to them including engines, weapons, sensors, artificial intelligence, and connectivity.
Lockheed Martin CEO James D. Taiclet and Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy J. Warden, in earnings calls with reporters over the past year, both noted that their companies are working on technologies applicable to NGAD. Lockheed Executive Vice President for Aeronautics, Gregory M. Ulmer, told Air Force Magazine he sees a big role for his company’s “Skunk Works” shop in manned/unmanned teaming.
NGAD is likely to remain highly classified as long as the Air Force can keep it that way. Kendall, taking a page from Cold War practice, has said he’s reluctant to share the shape and features of future combat aircraft lest the U.S. provide its opponents with a “head start” on developing countermeasures.