With technology constantly evolving aerial warfare, sixth-generation fighter jets are on the horizon. There is a race between many programmes to develop these aircraft. One of these is the Next Generation of Air Dominance (NGAD) programme, despite encompassing all aspects of future aerial combat, NGAD is often used to refer to the sixth-generation manned jet at the centre of the programme, a replacement for the F-22 Raptor, entering service in the 2030s.

At least one prototype out of no less than three flew in 2020 and the programme is now reaching the engineering, manufacturing, and development phase. The contract for NGAD is planned to be awarded by the United States Air Force (USAF) in 2024, now with two main competitors of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, after Northrop Grumman announced that it would not be bidding; however, it remains open to bidding on the navy’s sixth-generation FA-XX program.

The USAF will only commit to one NGAD design and with $16bn expected to be spent on research, development, testing and evaluation over the next five years, it promises to be lucrative. The ‘winner takes all’ approach is being used as the Pentagon is seeking to retain intellectual property for the aircraft system from the start, to prevent disputes already caused by the F-35, and easily integrate new technologies from other companies or come up with quick fixes themselves.

The NGAD jet will be paired with Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones, which will have a separate contract awarded. Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) integration will be an important part of the winning NGAD design. The USAF is planning to procure at least 200 NGAD jets (possibly 250) and 1000 CCAs, and although the price tag per jet is unknown, it is likely to be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars, but with a much lower operational cost than the F-22.

The US Navy is planning to request more than $9bn for its F/A-XX project over the next five years, to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets under its own programme but will have some similarities to the USAF’s. One difference between the two programs will be carrier-enabled takeoffs and landings, and the navy could also want a two-seater. 

China is also racing to develop its own sixth-generation fighter jet, but little is known about the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s programme. A design was published in the Chinese state-backed publication Global Times, which is very similar to US designs, perhaps copying it. However, some sources say that China may have its sixth-generation jet just a month behind NGAD.

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China also looks to be updating its J-20 to sixth-generation specifications and could be the platform its sixth-generation programmes build on, with known designs also appearing like a less-appealing version of the J-20. Since China is also replacing Russian-made AL-31F engines in its J-20s with Chinese-made WS-15 engines, it is also likely to produce its sixth-generation engines domestically.

There is also little known about Russia’s sixth-generation developments, with its Prospective Air Complex for Long-Range Interception programme developing an interceptor following on from the fourth-generation MiG-31, dubbed the MiG-41, built by Mikoyan.

This is an ambitious program, aiming for a first flight in 2025 and to be in service by 2028, capable of reaching Mach 4, carrying anti-satellite missiles and shooting down hypersonic missiles. However, with the war in Ukraine impacting Russia’s industry, this seems unlikely, with the MiG-41 expected to enter service in 2030-35, a similar timescale to the rest of the world’s sixth-generation fighters.

The UK unveiled Tempest in 2018 as a concept aircraft being developed by Team Tempest, a collaboration between BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo, and MBDA and has contracted over 580 suppliers, working alongside the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office and the Ministry of Defence, which plan to fly a demonstrator in 2027.

The Global Combat Air Programme was announced in 2022; the UK joined with Italy and Japan to deliver a sixth-generation fighter jet by 2035 and replace the UK and Italy’s Eurofighter Typhoons and Japan’s Mitsubishi F-2s.

This will get underway in 2025 when the countries will assess and share the costs. Sweden also has a deal with the UK, having signed a memorandum of understating in 2019, but this is its only link to FCAS, with Swedish manufacturer Saab stating that it is ‘on the margins’.

SCAF covers Next-Generation Weapon Systems and will replace French Dassault Rafales and German and Spanish Eurofighter Typhoons. Airbus and Dassault are cooperating to develop a prototype due to fly in 2029.

All these programmes seem to be working on a similar time scale, aiming to have their respective aircraft developed by 2030, in operation by 2035 and completely replace their fourth and fifth-generation counterparts by 2040.

The US seems to be furthest ahead at this stage, but it is tricky to tell where China is at, with its programme being kept much more discreet. Europe and Japan’s projects seem to be just behind the US, and Russia’s advancement seems reliant on its war in Ukraine.

The programmes also seem relatively similar, putting an emphasis on stealth technology, digital integration, and MUM-T capabilities, which besides advancing missile technology and electronic warfare, will define the sixth generation of the aerial battlefield.