Fast Switch to F/A-XX and NGAD Sixth Generation Fighter is Starting Over the Next Five Years

The US Navy is requesting more than $9 billion for its F/A-XX sixth generation fighter project over the next five years. The plan is to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

The two statements are very revealing. The US Navy is not talking about replacing the F-35C. Why?

The F-35C only had its first trial deployment in 2022. The current planes on almost all of the US Aircraft carriers are F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The U.S. Navy is purchasing 273 F-35C Lightning II fighter jets but they are coming at about 30 per year for many years. There are very few actually built and on aircraft carriers. The F-35C is the first stealth fighter designed for carrier operations. The F35C has larger wings than other fighters, which allows it to land on a carrier at slower speeds. The Marine corps is getting 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs.

This article discusses the reasons and evidence for a fast transition by the navy and air force to sixth generation fighters. This will save money and increase military capability.

The Navy has been slowing the F-35 orders to 30 per year or less because of low readiness grades for the planes.

The acquisition of sixth generation fighters for the Air Force and Navy is being shaped by the mostly failed F-35 program. In 2021, the F-35 program turned 20 years old. That’s longer than the entire service life of many legendary aircraft programs. The B-36 was retired 13 years after its first flight in 1946. The F-86 went from first flight to retirement in 18 years. In 2023, there has been about $200 billion spent on the F-35 program. The F-35 is still transition from a prototype to full-rate production. The program still struggles with many design flaws. It cannot be relied upon to perform well.

The Pentagon awarded the development contract for the F-35 in 2001, based on technology demonstrators, not production-ready aircraft. The Air Force and the Navy want to avoid the F-35 mistakes for sixth generation fighters.

“We’re not going to repeat the, what I think frankly was a serious mistake that was made in the F-35 program” of not obtaining rights to all the fighter’s sustainment data from contractor Lockheed Martin, Secretary Frank Kendall said.

When the F-35 program was launched more than two decades ago, Kendall said an acquisition philosophy known as Total System Performance was in favor. Under this approach, he said, a contractor that won a program would own it for its entire lifecycle.

“What that basically does is create a perpetual monopoly,” Kendall said. “I spent years struggling to overcome acquisition malpractice [on the F-35], and we’re still struggling with that to some degree. So we’re not going to do that with NGAD.”

The Air Force, Navy and Marines will each have their own sixth generation stealth fighter. There will not be a forced merging of designs like in the F-35 program. There may be commonality in engines and certain other parts but there will not be a forced sharing of the platform.

The government will own the intellectual property and control open platforms. They will be able to swap vendors for parts, systems and the whole plane in and out of the program.

They will fly fully production ready planes and pay for the development and then transition to production purchases of the sixth generation fighters.

They are trying to keep the research, development and actual planes more secret for longer. The F-22 and F-35 designs and technology were famously stolen by China.

The bulk of the F-35 program costs would be for operating and maintaining the planes. The total program has an estimated $1.7 trillion in cost but “only” $300-400 billion in acquisition costs. The F-22 and F-35 are expensive to operate and maintain.

If the Sixth generation F/A-XX and NGAD programs can take existing engine and stealth technology and rapidly integrate them into designs dedicated to each branch of the military, then affordable to acquire, operate and maintain fighters could get promptly deployed. The sixth generation programs have really been running for many years. In 2020, a working NGAD prototype already flew. Vendor selection for the NGAD will happen in 2024. Secretary Frank Kendall statements indicate that the Air Force and Navy will make NGAD and F/A-XX selections from production ready planes.

Last week, the Navy said that the F/A-XX had recently completed the Concept Refinement Phase and has entered Design Maturation. The Navy confirmed that Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, GE Aerospace, and Pratt & Whitney are industry participants in the F/A-XX Program.

The Navy wants to prioritize funding the research and development of Next Generation fighters over the continued production of F/A-18 Super Hornets. The Navy wants to make due with current fighters and order fewer F/A-18s and F35c and make a faster transition to next generation fighters.

The fast transition to 6th generation fighters is seen in the 2024 budget request. There is more money going to the F/A-XX Program that the F35c and F35b.

There is not much actual military risk to the slowdown of F35 program and faster switch to 6th generation. Why? The F-35 do not work very well. There are some redesigns being done to get improved F-35 electronics, systems and control of unmanned wingmen drones to work. This is more of a making lemonade out of lemons. The costs and value of the 6th generation planes can be maximized if the designs can have lower operational and maintenance costs. Operation and maintenance will be about 80% of the lifetime costs for the F35s. If the F35s can be retired decades early (say in 2040 instead of 2060) then the 6th generation planes could reduce overall budgets.

The new sixth generation fighter concepts are relying on heavy use of superdrone wingmen. There could be two to ten superdrones for each advanced fighter. It should be even easier to constantly upgrade each years acquisition of superdrones. The entire airfleets would have constant technological and capability improvement in separate integrated systems. Superdrones should be far cheaper to operate and maintain.

The cost to operate a Predator drone is about $3,500 per flight hour. This is significantly less than the cost to operate an F-16, which is about $8,000 per flight hour. F-35s cost about $42,000 per flight hour. The original plan was for F-35s to cost $25,000 per flight hour.

It is conceivable that F/A-XX and NGAD could be designed for $15,000 to $25,000 per flight hour and wingman superdrones could be $3000 to $5000 per flight hour.

The Navy and Air Force are starting to buy superdrones from 2025-2030 and will continue through the 2030s and beyond. The NGAD and F/A-XX could have small numbers bought from 2026-2032. Having the first sixth generation planes operational in 2030 is not impossible IF the program does not screw up. The sixth generation would only be about six to nine years behind the operational deployment of the F35s.

The F-22 cost roughly $135 million per tail, making it the most expensive fighter the U.S. Air Force has ever developed. The F-35A cost around $80-100M+ million per jet, but that number could rise.

NGAD, according to Kendall’s estimate, will dwarf those costs, at least when it comes to price per plane. But the sixth-generation platform will fulfill a key air dominance role, Kendall noted. “It’s going to be an expensive airplane; F-22 was an expensive airplane. It was one of my aircraft in one of my earlier positions, but it’s also an incredibly effective aircraft. It’s been dominant in the air for decades now. And we expect NGAD to be the same,” Kendall said. Kendall highlighted the need to design the system so that “you can do upgrades and do maintenance very efficiently.”

Translation: The Air Force and Navy are willing to pay twice as much to buy great fighter planes that actually work and are way better than the Chinese fighter planes. This will still be cheaper than the F35 is operational and maintenance are good.

The F35 program maintenance will be over $1.25 trillion across its service life. Kendall is optimistic that NGAD could avoid a similar fate, using new practices such as modular design and common interfaces. The broader NGAD program will include aircraft that are “much less expensive, autonomous, uncrewed … employing a distributed, tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment,” Kendall has said in the past. These unmanned teammates will be attritable, Kendall told Congress: not expendable, but cheap enough that they can be employed for more risky tasks.

Translation: My interpretation is supported that the Air Force and Navy want highly usable systems that lean on cheap but effective unmanned systems that can be used a lot. A long duration drone that is flying over location X is 100% more capable and useful than an F-35 sitting in hangers at airbases or aircraft carriers.

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Brian Wang