If NGAD doesn't produce a sixth-gen fighter, F-35s—like these at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska—might be pressed into service far longer than anticipated.

If NGAD doesn't produce a sixth-gen fighter, F-35s—like these at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska—might be pressed into service far longer than anticipated. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Beaux Hebert

What will happen to the Air Force’s next-gen fighter jet?

The service may be waffling on NGAD because it’s dealing with a “truly miserable choice,” one analyst said.

Delays in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program and Boeing’s lackluster performance on its own defense efforts could be driving recent—and unexpected—comments from Air Force leaders that it might not build a next-gen fighter jet. 

Aviation observers were thrown for a loop last week when service chief Gen. David Allvin declined to commit to building the future Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft—a program that was once the service’s top air dominance priority. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall also recently told Aviation Week that budget constraints are forcing the service to relook at its plans for NGAD.

“Just to be clear, the deliberations are still underway. There’s been no decision made. We’re looking at a lot of very difficult options that we have to consider,” Allvin told reporters Friday when asked about the program’s future. The service said it would pick a winner for NGAD this year, with Lockheed and Boeing in the running, but now that leaders are hedging on the program, it’s unclear if that goal still holds. 

The Air Force may be waffling on NGAD because it’s dealing with a “truly miserable choice,”  said Richard Aboulafia, managing director for AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consulting firm. 

“Boeing, which still hasn't replaced the worst senior management team in history, even though it intends to do so, and has a dismal track record, at best, with just about everything in recent years. Or Lockheed Martin, which has absolutely no incentive to execute on this in a cost effective way,” Aboulafia said.

If NGAD were canceled, the Pentagon would likely fly Lockheed’s F-35 jets longer—generating even more money for the defense titan. 

“They have no incentive. At the end of the day, there's a lot of [research and development] going into F-35 Block 4 and other improvements, and a lot of R&D that would need to go into NGAD. They're conflicted, at best,” Aboulafia said. 

This could also be deliberate messaging from the Air Force to Lockheed, Aboulafia said, which hasn’t been delivering F-35 jets for almost a year due to hardware and software delays with new technology for the jet.

Since the Air Force probably doesn’t trust Boeing enough to handle NGAD, and Lockheed is the only game in town for next-generation combat aircraft, the service could be telling the F-35 builder to “give us something to work with here on Block 4. When you've cleared up that absurd mess, you'll get this too. But we don't like it and we don't like your execution on things,” he said. 

Service officials have said that budget constraints are motivating their hesitancy towards NGAD. Paying for this next-gen fighter, which is expected to cost about $300 million a pop, will be tough as the service expects to spend increasing amounts of money in the coming years on F-35s, the new B-21 Raider, and the next-gen Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. And in addition to budget constraints, new technology developments and drones have the service rethinking the future of air dominance.  

NGAD may be the only place the Air Force can take a reduction, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, given all the other programs the Air Force needs to pay for, and the desire to grow its new collaborative combat aircraft program.  

The service also may be rethinking its overall concept of operations to rely on B-21, CCAs, and stand-off weapons rather than a traditional aircraft, Clark said. But given emerging technologies, it’s still unclear what air dominance is exactly going to look like in the future.  

Some experts argue that there could’ve been a chance for Boeing to grab NGAD to avoid Lockheed having a monopoly on U.S. fighter production. If so, the cancellation of NGAD would be a massive blow to Boeing, which has been pouring money into building new facilities for future air dominance contracts, like NGAD. But those investments could still be funneled to other programs like CCA, the Navy’s next-gen fighter (F/A-XX), and even precision guided munitions. 

On the industry side, Aboulafia said he’s more concerned about the supplier level, because companies have likely been preparing for next generation systems and “now, all of a sudden, highly uncertain future.”

While it’s too early to tell whether NGAD will actually be canceled or not, recent comments from Air Force leaders have signaled a “very sudden reversal,” said Doug Royce, an aviation analyst with Forecast International, a sister firm to Defense One.

“Whether it's driven by concerns over the budget, or concerns over technology, or uncertainty on the future of manned fighter designs—there's a bunch of open questions here,” Royce said.