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Air Force senior weapons and technology developers are again reiterating that there will not be any kind of cost-affordability “trade off” or reduction when it comes to balance its F-35 fleet with the emerging Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Generation platform.
While there will be of course clear and decided efforts to lower costs of both production and maintenance, the two aircraft programs will not drain from or compete with one another for funding or prominence when it comes to the composition and structure of the future force.
F-35s & Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Generation Platform (NGAD)
“We don’t see a trade-off between NGAD and the F-35. With the F-35 tech refresh and Block IV, that brings us an ability in contested environments, and the NGAD will ensure air dominance,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, told the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies in an interview. “There is no ‘money move’ between the F-35 and NGAD.
This perspective, articulated by Nahom, makes sense for the Air Force given the service’s ambitious plans for NGAD and continued commitment to F-35 functionality well into the 2070s and beyond.
The concept, as is regularly explained by Air Force leaders, is to operate both the F-35 and 6th-Gen aircraft alongside one another in a commensurate and supportive fashion.
This is particularly significant in that NGAD is primarily intended to operate as an F-22 replacement to ensure air-dominance and operate as the most superior air-to-air, high-speed, stealthy fighter jet in the world.
The F-35, while of course also stealthy and built for air-to-air engagements, is more of a multi-role fighter able to operate in a massive Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capacity as well as an attack jet in both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios.
The intent is for NGAD and the F-35 to compliment one another in air engagements. Perhaps an F-35 can use long-range, high-fidely sensors to pinpoint groups of enemy fighters and direct a group of 6th-gen fighters to pursue and destroy them in a dogfight in the air? Perhaps they will be networked to one another in unprecedented ways to enable combat integration, target-sharing technology and an ability to operate in a dispersed, yet highly networked fashion.
Interestingly, this does not mean the F-22 is disappearing either, as upgrades to the platform continue at a rapid pace with software and weapons adaptations intended to preserve and expand the lethality of the aircraft. Its AIM-9X and AIM-120D air-to-air weapons, for example, have been upgraded with software to improve precision, accuracy and survivability or hardening against enemy interference and “jamming.”
“We will continue to upgrade the F-22 as it will be the dominant platform until there comes a time when we need a new platform,” Nahom explained.
What this means is that it seems entirely conceivable that the Air Force in 2030 will fly upgraded F-35s alongside upgraded F-22s and a fast-growing number of 6th-Gen stealth fighter as well. While details regarding NGAD are understandably scare due to security concerns, it seems entirely realistic that the aircraft may be the fastest, most maneuverable, stealthiest and most lethal fighter jet the world has ever seen.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox