The U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Fighter Is Facing Headwinds

The U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Fighter Is Facing Headwinds
A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in a flight demonstration at the Paris Air Show 2023 at Le Bourget Airport, Paris, France, June 25 2023 (photo for NurPhoto by Nicolas Economou via AP Images).

The war in Ukraine has brought renewed interest to the issue of controlling the air domain during conflicts, an area that the U.S. Air Force did not have to worry about in Afghanistan and Iraq but will be a priority in any potential conflict with China or Russia. The service’s Next-Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program aims to develop a new fighter and ensure the Air Force’s airspace control. However, the program may be in peril due to budgetary issues and the legacy of the troubled F-35 multirole combat aircraft.

Throughout its recent “forever wars,” the U.S. military enjoyed complete airspace control. Now the U.S. and NATO air forces are preparing for a worst-case scenario: a conflict with a nuclear power, China or Russia, where control of the air domain will not be as easy to secure. As Kristyn Jones, the undersecretary of the Air Force, explained at an event hosted in January by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Air Force is “[coming] out of counterinsurgency warfare and [looking] to pivot towards peer competition or peer conflict with a very different adversary.” But Jones added that, for the moment, the U.S. is still not ready for such a peer conflict.

Russian defense companies are currently developing the sixth-generation Mikoyan MiG-41 fighter, to replace the Mikoyan MiG-31. The war in Ukraine will likely affect the timeframe for the MiG-41’s development and production, which is believed to be scheduled for the end of the decade, with a maiden flight expected to occur in 2025. Meanwhile, China is already developing a next-generation warplane with “open architecture that allows fast development, fast production and fast upgrades,” similar to its fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. The new aircraft could be in service by 2035.

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