WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s secretive Next Generation Air Dominance future fighter program could be the most expensive aircraft program in history, with each piloted, sixth-generation aircraft expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
When asked about the price tag for NGAD during a Wednesday appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall did not specify exactly how much an individual aircraft could cost, but said the service was talking about “multiple” hundreds of millions.
“This is a number that’s going to get your attention,” Kendall said. “It’s going to be an expensive airplane.”
That would be more than twice the F-35′s price tag of at least $80 million apiece.
Kendall said NGAD will be “incredibly effective,” but that it will have to be accompanied by less expensive platforms to extend its reach in combat, which he envisions as teams of autonomous drone wingmen.
The Air Force doesn’t have an estimate on how much the NGAD’s autonomous wingmen could cost. But in his keynote speech to the Air Force Association’s March conference in Orlando, Florida, Kendall said the service wants those combat drones to cost no more than half as much as their manned counterparts.
But if NGAD’s manned component will cost several hundred million dollars apiece, that suggests the wingmen may cost as much or more than an F-35.
The NGAD program is so far taking the proper steps in its development phase to hold sustainment costs down in the long term, Kendall said. This is being done by using modular designs and interfaces the government controls to ensure aircraft can easily receive upgrades and maintenance.
Kendall said this strategy will also lead to competition, which will further drive down costs.
“It’s worth the time and the effort in the earlier phases of a program like NGAD to get those things right because you’re going to pay for what you did much later in sustainment, with much bigger dollars,” Kendall said. “And from what I’ve seen of the NGAD program so far, that approach has been taken.”
In response to concerns raised by Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., that the NGAD’s schedule may be “sliding to the right,” Kendall said the Air Force is looking to field the NGAD in the early 2030s. The service plans to keep flying upgraded F-22 jets until then.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.