The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) is a highly classified and secretive programme of the US Air Force (USAF) to increase lethality and ensure air superiority.
The programme revolutionises the USAF’s modernisation plans by adopting a system-of-systems approach instead of a singular platform.
A sixth-generation fighter aircraft will form the centrepiece of the network-connected NGAD family of systems. It will be complemented by multiple manned aircraft, loyal wingman-style unmanned aerial vehicles, and advanced command, control and communication systems.
The USAF flew a full-scale flight demonstrator as part of the NGAD programme in September 2020.
The modern sixth-generation fighter jet is expected to replace the F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft beginning in 2030.
The USAF intends to initially procure 200 NGAD fighters and 1,000 unmanned collaborative combat aircraft (CCAs), assuming the use of two CCA platforms for each NGAD fighter and another two for each of the 300 F-35 fifth-generation fighters.
The NGAD programme originated from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Air Dominance Initiative study, which was completed in 2014.
The USAF published the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan in May 2016. The flight plan underscored the need for multidomain solutions developed through a more agile acquisition process.
The Air Superiority 2030 evolved into the NGAD programme with a system-of-systems approach at its heart.
The NGAD programme will provide the USAF with the sixth-generation combat aircraft in a teaming arrangement with mission-focused unmanned platforms, along with advanced weapons, electronic warfare systems, and sensors to enable mission success in a highly contested battlespace.
USAF secretary Frank Kendall announced in June 2022 that the programme was ready to transition to the engineering, manufacture, and design phase of development.
In May 2023, the Department of the Air Force issued a solicitation to industry as part of the source selection process for the engineering and manufacturing development contract for the NGAD combat jet platform, which is expected to be awarded in 2024.
The combat jet will be powered by advanced engines developed through the next generation adaptive propulsion (NGAP) programme.
Five companies, including Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, were each awarded a ten-year, $975m contract for the NGAP programme in August 2022.
The contracts cover technology maturation and risk reduction activities through various phases including design, analysis, testing of prototype engine, rig testing, and integration of weapon systems. The contracted companies are required to develop a prototype engine for the next- generation fighter.
NGAD fighter jet details
The NGAD fighter aircraft will be deployed to conduct counter-air missions. It will perform air-to-air strikes as well as attack ground-based targets to provide air superiority for the joint force.
The aircraft will provide enhanced survivability, adaptability, persistence, and interoperability in the air domain.
The detailed design and specifications of the aircraft have not been made public due to the classified nature of the programme.
Technologies and acquisition policy changes
The programme benefits substantially from the use of digital engineering, which can help in accelerating the development and production of the aircraft and reducing costs.
The USAF has invested in variable cycle engines with the aim of increasing electrical power generation, while improving cooling.
The acquisition strategy for the NGAD programme seeks to widen the industrial base to bring innovative warfighting capabilities more quickly to the forces.
One of the key objectives is to mitigate challenges encountered in recent acquisition programmes of the USAF. The NGAD will incorporate open architecture standards to enable the implementation of future upgrades.
An open architecture platform will maximise competition for upgrades throughout the life cycle, while cutting down costs related to maintenance and sustainment.
Collaborative combat aircraft
The NGAD fighter is estimated to cost as much as $300m per aircraft. Given the significant cost involved in procuring the next-generation manned aircraft, the USAF is planning to field more number of less-expensive CCAs that can operate in tandem with crewed NGAD fighters or autonomously, providing affordable mass in the combat scenario.
The CCAs flying with the manned fighter jet can seamlessly receive and execute commands from the pilot. They are expected to carry advanced sensors, electronic warfare packages, or additional munition to augment the fighter jet and perform different roles, including as a shooter, jammer, or a sensor.
Funding and budget requests for the NGAD programme
The NGAD programme is estimated to require $16bn over the next five years through 2028 for research, development, testing and evaluation.
The USAF requested $2.3bn for the programme in the budget proposal for financial year 2024 (FY24). The budget request includes investment to further develop the fighter aircraft and the NGAP power plant.
In FY23 budget request, the USAF had included approximately $1.7bn for the NGAD programme. It covered funding required for NGAD’s technology maturation and risk reduction activities, and further research and development in advanced sensors, resilient communications, and air vehicle technology.