China’s NGAD 6th Generation Fighter: A Nightmare for the Air Force?

Summary: The U.S. maintained unrivaled aerial superiority with its fifth-generation F-22 Raptor for many years, but now faces increasing competition from China and Russia. Both nations have developed their own fifth-generation fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and the Sukhoi Su-57, and are pushing rapidly into the sixth-generation with programs like China’s NGAD.

-These programs aim to match or exceed the capabilities of U.S. aircraft with advanced features such as stealth, high maneuverability, and sophisticated radar evasion. The U.S. is responding with its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which includes not just advanced manned fighters but also a fleet of around 1,000 autonomous “loyal wingman” drones to enhance combat effectiveness and reduce pilot workload.

-Additionally, the strategic bomber competition is intensifying, with the U.S.’s B-21 Raider and China’s H-20 bomber, both designed to project power far beyond their borders.

From F-22 to NGAD: The Evolution of Global Air Power Amid Rising Tensions

The U.S. retained unquestionable aerial superiority for many years after it introduced the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor. But China and Russia are catching up in this era of rising geopolitical tensions.

Beijing and Moscow have introduced their own fifth-generation platforms over the last decade—the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi Su-57, respectively. The race is now on to see which country can move its next-generation fighters to the production line the fastest. While the U.S. Air Force is working on its Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is on track to develop its own mockup.

What We Know About China’s NGAD 

In 2022, the PLAN’s next-generation fighter concept debuted at an aerospace trade expo in Guangdong Province—the futuristic, tailless aircraft was first spotted one year prior in publicly available Chinese aviation white papers. Illustrations showed a new fighter with enhanced radar evasion capability and likely gifted with high speed and maneuverability.

The tailless configuration closely resembles the NGAD. In fact, the head of U.S. Air Combat Command, Gen. Mark D. Kelly, believes that the People’s Republic of China is looking at its sixth-generation air power program “greatly the way we [the U.S.] see it.”

How Does It Compare to the USAF’s NGAD?

When Lockheed Martin released conceptual renderings for the Air Force’s NGAD last year, the depictions showed a similarly sleek and tailless airframe refueling from the LMXT tanker concept.

The sixth-generation fighter is being designed to prioritize stealth, propulsion, and advanced weapons. The service has released limited intel surrounding its upcoming project, as the true details and specs remain highly classified.

The Air Force has revealed that it plans a fleet of around 1,000 collective combat aircraft (CCAs) that will serve as loyal wingmen drones to the sixth-generation fighters they accompany. These highly autonomous drones will function as remotely controlled versions of electronic warfare or targeting pods located under the wings of existing fighters. The inclusion of these CCAs will “help reduce the massive cognitive load pilots must manage while flying their aircraft in combat,” according to Sandboxx News.

What About Other Sixth-Generation Platforms?

While China and the U.S. race to fly the first sixth-generation fighter platform, other concepts are also being tested by the two world powers. The Air Force is steadily working to develop its B-21 Raider stealth bomber series while the PLAN moves forward with its competing H-20 bomber program.

According to Chinese state-run media, the upcoming bomber can extend Beijing’s reach past the First Island Chain off the coast of the country, potentially threatening Japan, the Philippines, and even the U.S. territory of Guam. Beijing does, however, tend to overstate the true capabilities of its weapons programs.

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

Image: Creative Commons. 

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Maya Carlin