A Boeing concept for the Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, aircraft.

A Boeing concept for the Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, aircraft. Boeing

USAF Opens Bidding to Build Its 1st New Fighter in Decades

An engineering and manufacturing development contract is to be awarded in 2024 for the secretive Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force has formally launched a competition to build its new fighter jet, the Pentagon’s first in two decades, with the winner to be selected next year.

The acquisition strategy for the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, aircraft “incorporates lessons learned from recent Air Force acquisition programs and will leverage open architecture standards,” the Air Force said in a statement released Thursday. “This approach will enable the government to maximize competition throughout the life cycle, provide a larger, more responsive industry base, and drastically reduce maintenance and sustainment costs.”

This solicitation release “formally begins the source selection process” for NGAD, said the statement, which offered almost no details about the “engineering and manufacturing development contract” except that its winner is to be picked in 2024. 

The actual solicitation sent to companies is classified “to protect operational and technological advantages,” the service said.

This bid does not include “collaborative combat aircraft,” the drones that will fly alongside manned fighters, the statement said. 

The Air Force, which disclosed in 2020 that it flew an NGAD prototype that broke “a lot of records in the doing,” has revealed little else about the program. Even the identities of the companies doing the development work remain under wraps. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the only two U.S. firms that currently build fighter jets. But Northrop Grumman, which builds the Air Force’s new B-21 Raider bomber, is a major supplier to both, providing aircraft structures and electronics for the F-35 Lightning II, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and EA-18G Growler jammer.

The NGAD fighter is to replace the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter that is considered one the best air-to-air combat jets ever built. The F-22 can fly at supersonic speeds without using an afterburner and has thrust-vectoring engines giving it more maneuverability than prior-generation jets.

NGAD is supposed to be the U.S. military’s first sixth-generation fighter. The U.S. Navy has a similar program by the same name that’s working to build a sixth-generation fighter, which it calls F/A-XX.

The Air Force last chose a new fighter jet in 2001, when it selected the Lockheed Martin X-35 over the Boeing X-32. The companies developed X-planes in the late 1990s.

In Europe, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan are working together to develop a sixth-generation fighter. France, Spain and Germany have a similar effort of their own

The Air Force has requested $1.9 billion in research and development funds for the NGAD project in its fiscal 2024 budget request sent to Congress earlier this year. 

"The NGAD platform is a vital element of the Air Dominance Family of Systems which represents a generational leap in technology over the F-22, which it will replace,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a statement. 

"NGAD will include attributes such as enhanced lethality and the abilities to survive, persist, interoperate, and adapt in the air domain, all within highly-contested operational environments. No one does this better than the U.S. Air Force, but we will lose that edge if we don’t move forward now,” Kendall said. 

Kendall previously said the service plans to buy 1,000 CCAs: 300 F-35s will get two drones apiece, as will 200 of the NGAD aircraft. The secretary said he wants CCA production to start before the end of the decade and reach operational capability in a “comparable” timeline with the NGAD program.