The US Air Force (USAF) has been making significant progress within its Next Generation Air Defense (NGAD) Program, initiated to develop a sixth-generation fighter. The NGAD program is also intended to advance technologies, suspected to include propulsion, “new forms of stealth; advanced weapons, including directed energy; and thermal management.”
NGAD has advanced rapidly, with the USAF completing and testing a full-scale flight demonstrator in 2020, despite only receiving funding two years prior. The next generation fighter is projected to replace the F-22 Raptor in 2030 but that could happen sooner than expected. Although specifics of the NGAD fighter remain confidential, some details have been revealed about what the role and capabilities of the aircraft will be. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown Jr., has said the NGAD will have multiple roles, including its primary air dominance responsibility, as well as additional strike capabilities.
The aircraft will combine stealth technology with artificial intelligence to quickly process information to assist combat pilots. NGAD has been described as being a “family of systems” with a fighter as its core. Ideally, the NGAD should be able to connect manned and unmanned vehicles and improve reconnaissance and data sharing during critical and fast-paced missions. There may also be two different variants of the NGAD. One version would have a greater range and weapons load, designed for the Indo-Pacific. Another would have a shorter range, ideal for potential battles in Europe.
The NGAD program supports the long-standing mission of the USAF – air superiority. Developments in air defense technology are imperative to mission success in a near-peer threat environment. However, over 80 percent of the USAF’s current fighter aircraft are dated, based off designs from the 60s and 70s. Despite previous budget cuts, the NGAD program is expected to move ahead in the coming years. As technology advances across the globe, the new threat environment will require extensive modernization that the US must keep up with. But no matter if it can, its adversaries will.