The sixth-generation fighter will be eye-wateringly capable. And the most expensive fighter ever built.
The U.S. Air Force is bracing the public—and Congress—for the highly anticipated Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and the sticker shock wave the world’s first sixth-generation jet will leave in its wake. The NGAD fighter, set to begin replacing the F-22 Raptor in 2030, will cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars,” easily two or three times the cost of the F-35. The fighter is being optimized for the Asia Pacific theater and will be accompanied into battle by robotic sidekicks.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, in remarks reported by Defense News, told lawmakers that the crewed version of the NGAD fighter jet would cost “multiple” hundreds of millions of dollars. NGAD includes both crewed and uncrewed fighters; the uncrewed version would cost no more than half as much as the crewed version.
A per-unit cost of $200 million would easily make crewed NGAD fighters the most expensive fighter jet of all time. And to be clear, Kendall’s statement leaves plenty of room for the jet to actually cost in excess of $300 million. For context, the F-35A costs $77 million, while the new, updated F-15EX Super Eagle costs $80 million. If a crewed NGAD costs $300 million and the uncrewed version $150 million, that same pot of money could buy nearly six F-35As.
NGAD is a fundamentally different aircraft than the F-35A. The F-35A was designed in the 1990s as an economical replacement for several fighters, including the F/A-18C, AV-8B Harrier, F-16, and A-10 Thunderbolt. The F-35 was designed to fulfill multiple missions, including traditional fighter air-to-air roles, air-to-ground strike roles, and close air support. The new fighter is better compared to—and will replace—the F-22A Raptor, the world’s first fifth-generation fighter, designed purely for the air superiority mission.
We don’t know a lot about NGAD other than that it was designed and flown in less than a year. The strategic environment has changed a lot since the late 1980s, when the Raptor was first envisioned, and NGAD will reflect that. The aircraft is likely to be laser-focused on China, which means operating over the sweeping expanse of the Asia-Pacific region. A war with Beijing will involve moving tactical aircraft across thousands of miles; operating from remote bases carved out of tiny islands; and flying long-range missions against enemy air and ground defenses.
An NGAD might, for example, fly 1,400 miles from Guam to Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. There, it could bolster the island’s air defenses, protecting the American and Japanese bases on the island from Chinese fighters attempting to establish air superiority and strike aircraft pummeling allied bases. On the way there and back, it could use its range to skirt around Chinese warships with long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
The F-35 can’t do that, but that’s not what the F-35 was meant for. The F-22, however, can’t do that either, and that’s what the F-22 was meant for in the first place.
What will NGAD look like? Stephen Trimble, defense editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology, spelled out some ideas at the Check Six podcast. Trimble suggests a long-range fighter with the ability to cruise at 70,000 feet—much higher than current fighters—above the speed of sound, using breakthrough technologies such as daytime or optical stealth.
One thing we can infer about the new fighter is that it will be big. Previous-generation fighters used external fuel tanks to extend their range on combat missions, allowing aerial refueling tankers to stay out of harm’s way. External fuel and weapons, however, ruin an aircraft’s stealthy profile, making it much more visible to radar. As a result, NGAD will have to store a large amount of fuel and air-to-air missiles under the skin, buried within the fuselage of the aircraft.
Trimble suggests NGAD could be as large as the F-111—a large, long-range strike aircraft that served from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The F-111 was 73 feet long, could fly from treetop level to 60,000 feet, had a maximum takeoff weight of 100,000 pounds, and with internal fuel alone had a range of 2,600 nautical miles.
The F-22 is 62 feet long, flies at up to 65,000 feet, has a maximum takeoff weight of 83,000 pounds, and has a range of 1,600 nautical miles while carrying 10,000 pounds of fuel in external tanks. This number suggests that, if the Air Force wanted an air superiority fighter with a 2,000-nautical-mile range (enough to fly from Guam to Okinawa), an F-111-sized aircraft is not far from the mark.
No matter what NGAD actually looks like, it will probably be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It will also cost a lot more than we’ve ever paid for a fighter jet before. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which many predicted would never happen, it seems likely that the U.S. will indeed pay whatever it costs—both to deter China from launching a similar attack on Taiwan or, if deterrence fails, clearing the skies of People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighters.