For years, the Air Force has consistently emphasized the importance of its classified program aimed at developing the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) sixth-generation jet fighter. The program was envisioned to sustain air superiority into the mid-21st century and to replace the aging F-22 Raptor, which, while impressive, is technologically outdated. The Air Force asserted that NGAD, with an estimated cost of $16 billion, was progressing unusually fast. By 2020, the Air Force had disclosed that at least one full-scale NGAD demonstrator had commenced flight testing and remained its top priority.

However, on June 14, Air Force Chief of Staff Daniel Allvin took a cautious stance regarding NGAD’s future, indicating ongoing deliberations and no final decisions made. He hinted at exploring alternative approaches, potentially involving the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drone jet fighter originally intended to complement NGAD. This shift in tone, described by aviation journalist Bill Sweetman as reminiscent of a sudden change in direction, raised speculation about potential political maneuvers to secure additional funding from Congress.

The Air Force’s newfound solemnity towards NGAD might also reflect genuine concerns over budget constraints and evolving evaluations of the program’s cost-effectiveness and strategic value in light of emerging threats. Concurrently, the Navy’s decision to indefinitely postpone its parallel NGAD program underscores broader uncertainties within military planning.

Originally conceived to enhance air superiority capabilities with advanced technologies such as next-generation engines, more affordable stealth materials, integrated AI and drone control systems, and advanced sensor networks, NGAD aimed to maintain superiority against evolving threats posed by adversaries like China and Russia.

In summary, while NGAD was intended to secure the Air Force’s future dominance in the skies, recent developments suggest a reassessment is underway, influenced by fiscal realities and strategic priorities.

Did land-based nuclear weapons derail the Air Force’s latest stealth fighter?

A senior Air Force official, using the social media handle ‘Mike Black,’ pointed out that the Air Force’s investments in conventional warfare are being compromised by the simultaneous need to modernize both land- and air-launched nuclear weapons, assets the Air Force would prefer not to employ in combat. This convergence of modernization efforts affects three major programs: the ground-based LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the B-2 stealth bombers, and the B-52-launched AGM-86 cruise missiles. These systems are slated to be replaced by Northrop Grumman’s LGM-35 Sentinel ICBM, Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider stealth bomber, and Raytheon’s AGM-181 LRSO cruise missile, respectively. The Sentinel program, in particular, has already exceeded its budget by 37%, reaching $125 billion.

According to Black, the Air Force’s current budget allocation cannot sustain the simultaneous development of the B-21, NGAD, and Sentinel programs. He asserts this as an absolute impossibility without room for negotiation or trade-offs. Black argues that this financial predicament was foreseeable a decade ago, but it has now become an urgent budgetary issue in the 2026 fiscal year due to the unexpected financial strain caused by the Sentinel program.

Another theory proposed by aviation journalist Bill Sweetman suggests that budget overruns and delays in the F-35 Block 4 upgrade program may also be siphoning off funds that could otherwise be allocated to NGAD. Despite the F-35’s success in international markets and satisfactory performance in operational environments, concerns persist regarding its high operating costs per flight hour, which currently amount to approximately $6.6 million annually per F-35A. The Air Force’s decision to reduce the scope of the Block 4 upgrade due to delays and excessive costs further exacerbates these budgetary challenges.

In response to these fiscal constraints, the Air Force is exploring alternative strategies, including the potential integration of Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones alongside existing F-35s, F-15EXs, and F-16s. These drones, armed with advanced long-range missiles, could theoretically provide the necessary air superiority capabilities without the full deployment of NGAD. The CCA drones, already designed to operate alongside 5th generation fighters like the F-35, could be adapted for use with other aircraft in the future.

One tactical concept under consideration involves deploying CCA drones in high-risk frontline engagements while maintaining a standoff force of manned fighters positioned further back. This strategy would allow the manned fighters to control multiple drones simultaneously and engage in long-range missile strikes, thereby reducing operational risks and potentially offsetting the need for a fully deployed NGAD program.

It’s notable that Air Force specifications are influencing the CCA drone to become a capable and relatively costly non-expendable aircraft. Initially conceived to cost one-tenth the price of a manned stealth fighter as a “loyal wingman,” its current price is closer to one-third of that. While this cost comes with significant drawbacks, it suggests that the CCA’s advanced features could potentially compensate for older technologies on accompanying 5th- or 4th-generation fighters.

Additionally, drones offer the advantage of being adaptable or replaceable in response to new technologies at a lower cost and with greater ease compared to manned aircraft, which require substantial long-term commitments for maintenance, upgrades, and training.

However, Black argued against attempting to integrate NGAD’s capabilities into an F-35, asserting that doing so would sacrifice inherent capabilities unique to the NGAD airframe, such as low observability, superior range and speed, and payload capacity.

Especially as China expands its fleet of J-20 stealth fighters and introduces new types like the J-35, potentially followed by their own sixth-generation air superiority jets, it could become increasingly challenging to prevent threats from closing within effective attack range of friendly manned aircraft. In such scenarios, a stealth fighter with advanced maneuverability and endurance for aggressive air combat maneuvers would be crucial, complementing the capabilities of the F-35.

Moreover, NGAD is expected to have greater operational range than the F-22 and F-35, making it well-suited for the vast expanses of the Pacific theater and capable of escorting B-21 stealth bombers deeper into hostile airspace using internal fuel only.

The Air Force may harbor doubts about the longevity of any costly stealth fighter developed today, considering the substantial sustainment costs over decades that may not justify its effectiveness in the face of rapidly advancing technologies.

Officials have hinted at a preference for avoiding prolonged commitments to manned designs that could quickly become obsolete, favoring instead a strategy resembling “serial monogamy” with less expensive drones adaptable to technological advancements.

As the Air Force’s apparent reconsideration of NGAD—whether genuine or strategic—stirs debate within Congress and the broader military-industrial sector, the outcome remains uncertain and subject to ongoing scrutiny.