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US Air Force’s sixth-gen fighter downselect ‘not all that far away,’ says Kendall

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LONDON: The Air Force has yet to pick a winner among the companies still vying to build the service’s sixth generation jet, but a final downselect is “not all that far away,” the service’s top leader told Breaking Defense this weekend.

While Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall declined to say when the service will choose a manufacturer for the fighter jet that will be the cornerstone of the Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems, he offered a small clue about the trajectory of the highly-classified program.

“It’s not imminent but it’s not all that far away,” Kendall said in an exclusive interview at the Royal International Air Tattoo. “There’s a little hint I’ll drop for you.”

The Air Force has confirmed three elements of the NGAD program so far: a manned, sixth-generation fighter, the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile currently under development, and a suite of drones — what Kendall calls “collaborative combat aircraft” — that will augment the manned fighter in battle.

In June, Kendall announced that the NGAD fighter had progressed to the engineering, manufacturing and development stage, prompting speculation about whether the Air Force had chosen a prime contractor for the program. However, later that month Kendall said there was still ongoing competition for NGAD, raising further questions about the status of the program.

Although Kendall declined to answer most of Breaking Defense’s questions about NGAD, he stated that the program will not have a single prime in the “systems integrator” that oversees the makeup of the family of systems, and that the Air Force has separate acquisition efforts for each of the elements.

“The overarching integrator will probably be the government, with probably some industry help,” he said. “The NGAD platform itself will have a traditional prime [contractor].”

The Air Force has been unwilling to discuss which aerospace companies are involved in NGAD. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman could potentially manufacture the sixth-gen fighter, but it is unclear whether all three are currently still participating in the ongoing competition.

At least one full-scale NGAD fighter demonstrator made its inaugural flight in 2020. Air Force officials have declined to give further details about the maker of the aircraft or its capabilities, although they have made clear that digital engineering has been a critical technology that has allowed the service to develop it much more quickly than onlookers had expected.

“What we did was an experimental prototype,” Kendall said in June. “We basically had an X-plane program which was designed to reduce the risk of some of the key technologies that we would need for a production program.”

Kendall has said the Air Force plans to field NGAD “by the end of the decade.” How many the service will ultimately buy is still yet to be disclosed.

 

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