A top US Air Force official has expressed apprehension about whether the country will be able to develop the sixth-generation fighter jet before China fields it and uses it against America.
The defense community is closely watching the developments in the US sixth-generation fighter program called Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). Developing the type could be of paramount importance for the US to maintain its tech superiority in the field with China rapidly catching up.
The USAF has already flown a full-scale demonstrator of its futuristic NGAD fighter jet last September. And it is already concerned over its rivals closing the gap.
Speaking to reporters on February 26, USAF Air Combat Command head Gen. Mark Kelly said, “I for one am confident that the technology and the test points have developed to where NGAD technology will get fielded. And I’m confident that the adversaries on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war.
“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.”
What is NGAD?
The US Air Force is working on its ‘highly secret sixth-generation fighter jet under the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which will be a step above the fifth-generation F-35s with futuristic technologies.
The prototype was even flown in September and is said to have “broken records”, The Eurasian Times reported earlier. No further details of the fighter are known at the moment. There is speculation that it will possess improved stealth capability and incredible speeds.
However, it could take more than a decade for the sixth-generation fighter jet to become a reality. There is a reason for the US to get worried given that China is also developing its sixth-generation aircraft. An ANI report quoted Wang Haifeng, chief designer at China’s Chengdu Aircraft Research and Design Bureau, as saying that it would be ready by 2035.
Kelly didn’t comment about the timeline and the stage at which the US’ NGAD program is currently in, and neither did he reveal the number of prototypes built so far. “It’s a keen focus, a keen capability,” Kelly said.
“We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the biggest benefit we’ve had as a nation — to have leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”
The US Air Force was the first air force in the world to have commissioned a fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, nearly 15 years ago. The jet is even out of production now, with the focus being directed on the upgrade of the existing fleet and its replacement by the single-engine F-35 Lightning II. But the Pentagon is still worried about giving the go-ahead for F-35’s serial production.
In contrast, China has scaled up its production of the J-20 stealth fighter, which was inducted into the PLA Air Force in 2017, the same year the US began deploying its F-35s in Japan. It is believed the number J-20s produced so far will be 60-70.
There are also reports that Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) set up a fourth J-20 production line in 2019, each line able to produce one fighter per month. At this rate, the J-20 should approach the total production numbers of the American F-22 by 2027. This would amount to at least 200 fighters, making it the world’s second-most common stealth fighter behind the F-35, according to the ANI report.