• An Air Force General has touted the technology that powers its secret new fighter jet, promising it will give adversaries a “tough war.”
  • The General says the Air Force will field the next-gen tech—if Congress is willing to pay for it.
  • The Pentagon is bracing for a fierce defense budget battle in the near future.

    The head of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command says he’s confident the service will field the technology behind its secret new fighter jet—if the U.S. is willing to come on board.

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    Gen. Mark Kelly’s unprompted statement about the future of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program likely presages the coming battle over the direction of the national defense budget, and which programs the Pentagon will prioritize over others.

    In a media roundtable, Gen. Kelly said NGAD could become a deployable system that would give adversaries “a very tough day and tough week and tough war,” per Defense News. But Gen. Kelly implied the key ingredient was a commitment to actually field the system—i.e. money:

    “What I don’t know—and we’re working with our great partners—is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us.”

    ngad lockheed martin skunk works

    Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works concept art of a sixth generation fighter jet.

    Lockheed Martin/Breaking Defense.

    The Air Force describes NGAD as a “family of systems,” likely including both crewed and uncrewed aircraft. In September 2020, the Air Force revealed it had designed, built, and flown a fighter jet for the NGAD program in the astonishing span of just one year.

    The Air Force hasn’t revealed much about the mysterious aircraft—presumably to avoid tipping its hand to China and Russia—but did exclusively tell Popular Mechanics in January that the plane uses F1-style engineering.


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    Still, if the Air Force wants to build NGAD and the new fighter, it will have to lobby for funds. Observers believe the Pentagon defense budget will be essentially flat through the first term of President Joe Biden’s administration, a trend that could persist if the economy fails to pick up or enters another recession.

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    Depending on the U.S.’s economic outlook, spending on defense could even shrink through the rest of the decade.

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    In the meantime, the services are gearing up for a financial fight. As the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East wind down, the Pentagon is reorienting toward a possible conflict in the Asia-Pacific and Europe. The Navy is expected to win the lion’s share of the budget, boosting the number of ships and planes to stay ahead of the Chinese Navy. The Air Force, whose aircraft are rapidly deployable worldwide, could also see a boost. (The big loser will likely be the Army, which planners see as playing a minor role in a Pacific war.)

    The Air Force is committed to a number of major aircraft programs through the 2020s, including the secret new fighter jet, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, T-7A Red Hawk trainer, KC-46 Pegasus tanker, B-21 Raider bomber, and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ballistic missile. This is easily the largest slate of aircraft (and missile) purchases the Air Force has committed to in 25 years. The Air Force wants to buy these systems to boost its viability as the world’s premier aerial fighting force.


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    While the Air Force will likely get the full slate of weapons, it will also want all the weapons. In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ended the F-22 Raptor program early, buying just 195 of the original 750 aircraft the service wanted. The 195 Raptors weren’t enough to replace the Air Force’s fleet of 1980s-era F-15 Eagles.

    aerial refuelling tanker aircraft kc 10 extender participates in exercise talisman sabre 2019

    A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor flying over Brisbane, Australia, 2017.

    Chris HydeGetty Images

    Gen. Kelly is almost certainly advocating for a full commitment to the NGAD program, including buying the complete lot of aircraft. The Air Force may be coy about its secret new fighter jet for now, but once the budget battle heats up, expect the NGAD fighter to emerge from the “black” world of classified weapons development and come out swinging.

    NGAD’s first mission, even before building the first operational aircraft, will be to market itself to Biden and Congress.


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