Is It Really Possible that the NGAD Is Dead?

I love keeping up with military technology. It is a hobby of mine, going back to the days when my second field in graduate school was security studies. 

I don’t pretend to be an expert, of course, because that requires time and experience I don’t have. But I am above-average in knowledge about the issue simply out of interest. 

So, of course, I have kept up with the Next Generation Air Dominance program, with all the leaks, discussions about capabilities, cost, progress, and the like on my “to follow” list. And until just about yesterday (really, the past few weeks), the news has been exceptionally good. The project was on time, on budget (more or less), and breaking records. While we haven’t seen a design, we have been told that tests have already taken place and that records have been broken. 

Then, in the blink of an eye, things turned sour. Suddenly, the Air Force is talking about scaling back or abandoning the program, largely due to budget issues. 

I wrote about this development a couple of weeks ago, and more news keeps coming out, and it is not good. Alex Hollings, The War Zone, and others have been keeping up with the news since it is so big. 

Yesterday The War Zone reported that “the Air Force has “no official F-22 Raptor replacement,” which was news to me. Contracts for the jet were scheduled to be let out soon, and now that is apparently in doubt. 

In what could be another sign of the Air Force’s potentially withering support for the manned ‘fighter’ component of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, the head of Air Combat Command said there is now no planned replacement for its fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Originally, the crewed sixth-generation stealth combat jet being developed under the NGAD initiative was loosely slated to replace the F-22 within the USAF force structure.

“Right now, frankly, there isn’t an F-22 replacement,” said Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach. ”The F-22 is a fantastic aircraft. We’re actually planning several upgrades to the jet as we speak, and there is no official replacement to the F-22 right now.” You can read al [sic] about these upgrades here.

The problem with the effort to upgrade the F-22 isn’t that the fighter has been surpassed in capability, although its electronic suites are less capable than the F-35; it’s that there are so few of them due to budget cuts during the Global War on Terror and that the airframes are aging out. In a war, attrition has to be accounted for, and with fewer than 200 aircraft attrition would be a serious problem if a near-peer conflict broke out. 

The US has been purchasing new and upgraded F-15s that are ambiguously labeled 4th-generation plus aircraft–they have upgraded electronics and capabilities, but they are hardly stealthy aircraft. Against other 4th-generation aircraft they would rule the skies; against China’s J-20 they would be of at least questionable utility. 

In other words, if we were fighting Russia we would dominate; against China, not so much–especially when you factor in the distances involved. 

The US has gone on a massive program to improve weapons, with new Air-to-Air missiles of extraordinary capabilities nearing deployment, but you can’t hit what you can’t see, and while stealth is hardly perfect, a missile that can travel 200 miles is of limited utility against an aircraft you don’t even know is there. 

The problem seems to be budget, although not specifically the extremely high cost of the NGAD itself, but the horrendous cost overruns of the nuclear modernization program to replace decades-old ICBMs. Everybody expected the NGAD to have an astronomical cost, but with the B-21 program running simultaneously with the ICBM upgrade program and the NGAD, the Air Force has a lot on its plate and something has to be cut. 

The future of the NGAD manned fighter program is increasingly murky, as the Air Force seeks to reduce the cost of the jets, said to be about $250 million or more apiece while also looking at the rapidly changing realities of air combat. This is in addition to having to deal with many critical modernization priorities, some of which have run massively over budget. You can read more about that in our deep dive here.

Still, Wilsbach said he expects the NGAD aircraft downselect will happen this year. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are in the running for the contract award.

The NGAD seems to be the choice–the second time an air dominance fighter gets cut, since the F-22 program was shut down in the Bush II administration given that air dominance was unnecessary for fighting medieval warriors. We had air dominance from the start. 

That would not be the case with China, which is both on a massive building program and has the advantage of proximity to the area of conflict. 

The B-21 has many of the capabilities of the NGAD–and in many ways would be superior as a weapons platform. 

Except, and it is a big except, that it is slow and unmaneuverable. It could loiter in the area of conflict in a way that the NGAD probably could not and serve as a quarterback for drones, but it would be extremely vulnerable if spotted and would be utterly incapable of dogfighting. 

Experience shows that dogfighting may be rare, but when you need to do it you NEED to do it, and the B-21 would be a joke as a dogfighter. Perhaps its drones could serve the role, but that is quite the bet, especially when you are putting human lives on the line in the “quarterback” aircraft. 

Given the conflicts we need to deter in the near future, the NGAD is a better deterrent fit than a nuclear missile. China doesn’t want a nuclear war any more than we do, and even a degraded nuclear deterrent would almost certainly more than sufficient to keep the calculations murky for an adversary. 

We need to deter a high-end conventional conflict, and the NGAD definitely would be a big help in doing so. The capacity to clear the skies in a high-end conflict would make any adversary think twice–and deterring a conventional conflict would serve to prevent a nuclear conflict because a nuclear exchange would only result from a failing conventional war. 

It is possible that the Pentagon is using the threat of cancellation as a negotiating tactic. I doubt it. The Pentagon is nearly useless when it comes to procurement. 

Is this a disaster? I don’t know. But it is definitely not good. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

When does Prime Day 2024 end? 14 deals to shop before the clock strikes midnight

New York Post may be compensated and/or receive an affiliate commission if…

Heartwarming update on Cleo Smith shared by family

Cleo Smith‘s family have released new photos of the now-seven-year-old, almost three…

Senior officer engaged in 'serious misconduct' when crashing car while 'drunk'

A senior NSW police officer who allegedly drunkenly crashed his car in…

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson hoping RNC can 'elevate' city

MILWAUKEE (WLS) — The Republican National Convention has brought together tens-of-thousands of…