AFA NEWS: General Wants 'Manhattan Project'-Like Commitment to Next-Gen Fighter
Air Force illustration
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The leader of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command would like to see more funding and a whole-of-nation approach to developing a sixth-generation jet fighter.
Gen. Mark Kelly said Sept 22 that coming in second to an adversary in developing a follow-on to a fifth-generation fighter such as the F-35 joint strike fighter is a not a good spot to be.
“We do not want to be on the other side of coming in second in air superiority,” he told reporters in a briefing at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference.
Adversaries such as Russia and China are presumably working on sixth-gen fighters, as are U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom with its Tempest program, which is being done in partnership with Italy, Sweden and possibly Japan.
The U.S. Air Force is pursuing its secretive Next-Generation Air Dominance program, also known as NGAD, which is said to entail two or more models of aircraft in a family of systems. A year ago, former Air Force official Will Roper said a prototype of an NGAD platform had already flown.
But Kelly said he would like to see development “go faster.”
“I would like to have more of a sense of urgency and a whole-of-nation effort towards it,” he said, something akin to the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
He continued with the A-bomb comparison, saying developers in the Manhattan Project knew that coming in second “would be a really bad place to be.”
“We're in the business of putting adversary airplanes in the dirt or scaring them so much so they bury themselves,” he said.
Assuming adversaries will eventually field their own next-gen aircraft, Kelly said he at least wanted a wide margin between the United States coming in first, and them trailing behind.
“Do I think we're going to field it? Yes. Do I think we're going to build it before our adversaries? Yes. Do I know we are going to build it before them? … I would like to sleep comfortably knowing we've got a really good margin,” he said.
When asked if he would like to see more funding, Kelly answered “yes.”
The military is pivoting to great power competition. The resources should follow, he added. “You will only pivot to great power competition as you pivot resources to great power capabilities. This is a great power capability.”
When asked how he would feel if an ally's sixth-generation system, such as the United Kingdom's Tempest, was fielded first, Kelly said that was something he hadn’t thought about much. The Tempest program is aiming to field its first aircraft in the mid-2030s. During a Sept. 21 meeting with reporters at the conference, U.S. Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, declined to say when the service plans to begin fielding NGAD systems, but said the program is "progressing per plan."
“Coming in second to an ally is head and shoulders above coming in second to an adversary," Kelly said. "But I would also say, if you ask [six] people their definition of a sixth-gen, you may get six answers."