How NGAD Fighter Can Help Win the Next War

When former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that you go to war with the army you have, not with the army you wish you had, the U.S was already at war. All the leaders of the military could do was react to their short-sighted budget failures and scramble to upgrade those vehicles as quickly as possible, even as they came under relentless attacks in Iraq.

Fortunately, the United States is not in a declared state of war. Now is the time for decisive leadership and investments in the military we want to have, and then build it to protect us in the future. We should act now, before we are in the middle of a fight, not react later at the expense of American lives.

This point seems obvious, but it apparently escapes Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general. Breedlove writes that the “global threat environment demands we build as many F-35s as we can, as fast as we can.” Why would he think that? He says it is because, “the F-35 is simply the only allied stealth fighter in production that meets the demands of modern warfare.”

While speciously factual, it belies a greater underlying problem that fails to get to a long-term and sustainable solution. Having watched numerous budget contortions by the Air Force in the past, his statement alone is driven more by service loyalty to the Air Force than developing a combat-capable fighter to safeguard our nation. Even if it was true that the F-35 is all we have today (it isn’t, but that point isn’t worth arguing about), it simply isn’t good enough. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps all struggle to deploy F-35s, even as they keep coming off the assembly line over budget and failing to meet their design mission requirements. It remains a struggling acquisition program.

Just last month, the Government Accountability Office wrote that F-35 “contractors continue to deliver engines and aircraft late – a trend that has worsened in the last few years. The program also faces delays in updating the aircraft’s software and has been slow to modernize the engine and other aircraft components.” The program is so poorly run that the Pentagon stopped taking delivery of new F-35s last year because of hardware and software problems. Rep. Rob Wittman says the entire program is “very, very problematic.”

We must have better systems in the future, before hostilities break out. The solution is to accelerate innovation by supporting projects such as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. That will drive changes in how the Pentagon acquires weapons. The F-35 was dreamed up in the 1990s, years before anyone thought about warfare with drones and unmanned aircraft. Instead of expensive, decades-long systems, we need smaller , more nimble programs that meet mission requirements and adapt quickly to new and evolving threats.

“Instead of investing in small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned military platforms, the United States must rapidly field large numbers of smaller, lower-cost, autonomous systems,” writes Christian Brose for the Hoover Institution. “This alternative force will not emerge from the Pentagon’s antiquated, central planning process. Instead, we must create a parallel defense system that looks less like Communist China and more like capitalist America.” 

Fortunately, today’s military leaders also realize this. “Our Air Force must accelerate change to control and exploit the air domain to the standard the nation expects and requires from us. If we don’t change – if we fail to adapt – we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades,” said Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. in 2020. He is in a position to drive change as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Adaptable next-generation weapons will incorporate the goal “to field thousands of attritable autonomous systems, in multiple domains, within 18-to-24 months,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks says. “It’s about showing ourselves – and our adversaries – that DoD can move fast to shape the battlespace and equip our warfighters with what they need.”

Hicks notes that: “Our starting position is stronger, as a free and open society of blue-sky inventors, doers, and problem-solvers. We don’t seek to control innovation, or make it toe the party line. Instead, we aim to seed, spark, and stoke the flames of innovation.” NGAD can be a critical component of that innovation.

The F-35 is the very opposite of that type of experimentation. It is too expensive and remains too vulnerable. For example, years ago, “Chinese hackers broke into the defense contractor Lockheed Martin and stole the plans for the Pentagon’s cutting-edge new joint strike fighter, the F-35,” New York Times journalist David Sanger writes. That means Beijing may already know how to defeat the F-35 before it has even fired a shot.

Our Air Force cannot afford the singular focus on the F-35 to defeat China with air superiority.  Next generation technology  is how we will maintain American dominance. The answer is to invest in NGAD today, not build more failing F-35s for a fight we just might lose.

About the Author: Kirk Lippold

Commander Kirk S. Lippold, USN (Ret) was the Commanding Officer of the USS Cole when it was attacked by al Qaeda terrorists. He has appeared on numerous domestic and international news networks, speaking about critical national security issues affecting our nation.

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Kirk Lippold