US Air Force eyes NGAD deliveries by 2030. Can it be done?

Editor’s note: This story was updated with information on the Office of Inspector General’s evaluation of the program.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force’s secretive, next-generation fighter platform is still in the design process and has not formally entered its engineering, manufacturing and development stage, the service’s secretary said this month.

The acknowledgment marks a step back from June, when Frank Kendall publicly said the highly classified Next Generation Air Dominance program had already hit the key milestone. “We have now started on the EMD program to do the development aircraft that we’re going to take into production,” he said during a Heritage Foundation event at the time.

It also has some experts wondering if the service can meet its goal of delivering the first iterations of the sixth-generation fighter by the end of this decade.

Kendall offered the fullest update so far on the status of NGAD during a Sept. 19 roundtable with reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference.

The service is still designing NGAD, Kendall said, and the program has not yet gone through the Milestone B review process. That milestone marks the completion of a program’s technology maturation phase and the formal start of an acquisition program, when the service takes its preliminary design and focuses on system integration, manufacturing processes and other details ahead of production.

Kendall’s June comments, in which he also said the Air Force would deliver some NGAD capabilities by the end of the decade, surprised some in the aviation world and suggested the program was further along in the process than initially thought. Several defense publications, including Defense News, reported on his comments at the time as indicating NGAD had formally entered the EMD phase.

Asked about his June comments during the Defense News Conference on Sept. 7, Kendall suggested he hadn’t meant the implication.

“I’m an old-school guy,” Kendall said. “I’ve been around doing this stuff for a long time, and I still think of engineering and manufacturing development as a phase in which you are working on the new design.”

Asked again about the program at the Air, Space and Cyber conference, Kendall clarified that the service is still working on NGAD’s design and that he used the term EMD in “my colloquial sense.” He said the Milestone B decision, which occurs after the preliminary design review and is a prerequisite for entering the EMD phase, has not taken place.

Kendall also said the Air Force is still aiming for production of NGAD around the end of the decade.

Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter said this month that the end of this decade is the service’s goal for “fielding the manned platform” component of NGAD. Its drone wingmen, which the Air Force now refers to as collaborative combat aircraft, are expected to arrive sooner, he added.

Kendall’s acknowledgment that NGAD has not entered the EMD phase, much less finished the design process, raises the possibility the program might not reach initial operating capability by the end of the decade, Heritage Foundation think tank fellow and former Air Force fighter pilot John Venable told Defense News.

“It could happen [by 2030], but the odds are against it happening” by then, he said.

Heather Penney, a former F-16 pilot and senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, is also wary the Air Force can achieve its goal by the end of the decade.

“I have serious skepticism that NGAD will reach a meaningful full-rate production Milestone C decision by the end of the decade,” Penney said. “It would be realistic to expect that full-rate production will not occur until sometime into the 2030s. I would love for the Air Force to prove this wrong.”

The Milestone C decision comes at the end of the EMD phase of the acquisition process, and it is where a decision is made whether or not to move a program into the production and deployment phase.

Kendall’s comments have also attracted the attention of the Pentagon’s inspector general.

In a Sept. 26 letter to Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the Office of Inspector General said it plans to begin an evaluation of NGAD this month. The office wants to see to what extent the Air Force had demonstrated the program’s critical technologies were mature enough to warrant moving to the EMD phase.

During his June comments, Kendall said the average Air Force acquisition program takes a little less than seven years to move from starting the EMD phase to initial operating capability. Later, at the Air, Space and Cyber conference, he suggested NGAD might be able to compress that timeline. “I’m not sure NGAD will be an average program,” he told reporters.

Kendall has said he is pushing Air Force acquisition officials to get new capabilities, such as NGAD’s autonomous drone wingmen, into the field faster than the process normally allows. For example, Kendall said he isn’t interested in conducting demonstrations or experiments unless absolutely necessary.

“If we don’t need it to reduce risk, we should go right to development for production and get there as quickly as we can,” he said in June. “If the risk is high, and we need to do some things just to be prudent, to address that risk first, we should do that in a focused, efficient way. I have a sense of urgency about getting new capabilities [and] I’m willing to take some risk there.”

While Venable and Penney cautioned there’s a lack of public information on NGAD, they said the program still has multiple headwinds.

The Air Force wants it to have an autonomous drone wingman capability, include sixth-generation technology and exist as a “family of systems” rather than just a single manned aircraft. It will also be expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, Kendall told lawmakers earlier this year.

Because the program hasn’t entered the EMD phase, passed the Milestone B review or finished its design, Venable said the Air Force will have to significantly compress its seven-year timeline to meet the 2030 goal.

“You could call me a skeptic, [but] there is no track record that says they can do that,” Venable said. “If you’re going to buy all commercial off-the-shelf stuff, [that can be done]. This is one where it’s leading-edge technology.”

He and Penney agreed the Air Force might not reach initial operating capability for NGAD until well into the 2030s.

“This is clearly going to be an advanced capability,” Penney said. “Because of the classification, there’s a lot that we don’t know about it — everything from design materials to production to capabilities.”

It’s also uncertain how the different capabilities comprising the “family of systems” will combine to make up the NGAD platform, Penney said — and this will require considerable testing.

“It’s probably not just one airplane; it’s probably several,” Penney said. “And we’ll need to prove that NGAD can connect and communicate with other capabilities, whether or not those are within other domains, or whether or not it’s within its own formation.”

With the Air Force moving to retire older airframes, such as noncombat-capable F-22 jets, and shift some of the savings to NGAD, Venable is worried the service may be making a risky bet that NGAD arrives by the end of the decade.

“If it does not happen, and this slides into the next decade — which is more likely than not — it would be a fool’s errand to actually cash in viable combat platforms now on the bet that no Las Vegas gambler would take,” Venable said.

Although Kendall would not discuss NGAD’s capabilities, he remains adamant the program is vital for the Air Force to keep up with advanced competitors, particularly China.

Asked at the Defense News Conference if the nation can afford an air platform costing multiple hundreds of millions of dollars apiece — several times the price tag of an F-35 fighter — Kendall responded: “Can the nation afford not to have air superiority? We have to have air superiority.”