The Air Force must field its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter soon if it wants to compete with China, the general in charge of the service's fighter fleet said Friday.
Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said that he is "confident" that adversaries like China, facing this new technology, "will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war."
"What I don't know, and what we're working with our great partners, is if our nation will have the courage and the focus to field this capability before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us," he said during a virtual chat with reporters at the Air Force Association's annual Aerospace Warfare Symposium.
In September, the Air Force revealed it had quietly built and flown a brand-new aircraft prototype that could become a future advanced fighter jet. Officials have said NGAD defies traditional categorization as a single aircraft platform or technology. Instead, it's made up of a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.
The NGAD program could also include fighters and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side, officials have said.
"We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we've had as a nation to have that leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force," Kelly said.
When asked how close the Air Force was to fielding NGAD, Kelly demurred.
The Air Force is developing NGAD alongside a future fighter road map. In an ongoing "TacAir study," Air Force officials are trying to determine the right mix of aircraft for the future inventory, and assessing how future fighter concepts would fit into the current mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
"This study will give us that 10-to-15-year lens ... so we're not trying to deal with it day by day, week by week, year by year," Kelly said Friday.
The Air Force wants to outline specific mission sets for its aircraft where it can. Deploying high-end fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F-22 Raptor for a routine allied patrol mission, for instance, is costly overkill.
Lockheed Martin, the F-35's manufacturer, estimates the jet's cost per flight hour at $36,000, with a goal of reducing it to $25,000 by the end of 2025, company officials said this week. That adds up, Kelly said.
Cost aside, Kelly said the F-35's role as premiere, multirole combat jet remains unchanged, despite discussions of new fighter development.
"It's still going to be a centerpiece of much of what our Air Force does for decades to come," he said.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown this week disputed reports that the F-35 was a high-cost Pentagon failure, saying that was "nowhere near the case."
Brown told reporters on Feb. 17 that the Air Force isn't ruling out bringing a new fighter jet into its inventory as it looks to replace older, fourth-generation F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, also made by Lockheed.
Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter program, the Air Force has held that older Falcons should be replaced by the fifth-gen F-35 Lightning II. Some critics viewed Brown's comments last week as foreshadowing the stealth jet's demise.
The Air Force is the largest customer for the F-35, and hopes to procure 1,763 F-35 A-variants. But according to Aviation Week, future budgets could limit the inventory. The magazine reported in December that the service might cap its total F-35 buy at 1,050 fighters.
Neither Brown nor Kelly addressed how many F-35s the service would ultimately end up with during this week's conference.
The chief added NGAD and the F-35 are not comparable from a programmatic and funding standpoint.
"As far as NGAD versus F-35, we're not going to take money from the F-35 to [fund] the NGAD," Brown said Thursday.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.