US begins engineering, manufacture, & development of NGAD

The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Sixth Generation Fighter program began its engineering, manufacture, and development (EMD) phase on June 1, following claims in 2020 that the first technology demonstrator for the construction of an American sixth generation fighter had commenced test flights.

Because of worries that China’s own competing programme could create an operational fighter faster, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that the goal would be to turn the programme into an actual capability before 2030.

“We’ve now started on the EMD programme to do the development aircraft that we’ll put into production,” he said, before going into detail about the technology demonstrator that had previously flown: “So we basically had an X-plane programme, which was designed to reduce the risk in some of the key technologies that we’d need for a production programme.”

Kendall went on to say that he was “not interested in demoing experiments unless they are an essential step on the road to a new capability… we should go straight to development for production and get there as rapidly as we can.”

The NGAD programme aims to provide a replacement to the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor and its predecessor, the fourth-generation F-15 Eagle, to the US Air Force. The F-15 has remained on production lines far longer than predicted, with orders to end production given less than four years after it entered service. It is still being made today, 50 years after its first flight in 1972.

The need for a viable post-fourth-generation air superiority fighter has become increasingly critical as the F-22 faces a variety of issues, particularly relating to its maintenance needs and seeing its avionics fall further behind the cutting edge, and is slated for a very early retirement from service.

Progress in China’s own fifth-generation air superiority fighter programme, the J-20, which is now producing over 30 planes per year, is rapidly receiving upgrades, and has cutting-edge avionics comparable to America’s fifth-generation strike fighter, the F-35, has made the American fleet’s position appear particularly precarious.


With $1.7 billion allocated to the NGAD programme in the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 defence budget request, it’s unclear whether the fighter it produces will be as problematic as the F-22, what new technologies it will introduce, or how it will compare to its Chinese rival, which is thought to be at a similar stage of development.

The fighter’s affordability and production numbers, with each airframe costing several hundreds of millions of dollars, are also unknown, but a fleet size a fraction of the size of even the small F-22 fleet seems likely.

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