The U.S. Air Force wants to advance its classified Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned sixth generation fighter, each of which may operate with a handful of drones, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Apr. 19.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget requests nearly $1.7 billion for NGAD.

“That program has been relativelv successful, and we’re ready to build upon it,” Kendall told a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C.

NGAD stemmd from the Aerospace Innovation Initiative, kicked off in 2015 by Kendall when he served as former President Obama’s DoD acquisition chief. Kendall said that the initiative led to a contract before the end of the Obama administration to investigate needed technologies for a sixth-generation fighter. Before the Aerospace Innovation Initiative, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) had spearheaded an Air Dominance Initiative–a two-year study, begun in 2013, on a “family of systems” approach that would tie together sensors, weapons and battle management for a future fighter.

The Air Force wants to use a number of drone research and development programs as feeders for a classified, service program to field combat drones by 2030 (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

A number of research efforts have explored the possibilities of autonomous combat drones, such as the Air Force’s Skyborg program, the DARPA Air Combat Evolution (ACE), and Boeing’s [BA] Loyal Wingman project with the Royal Australian Air Force.

On Apr. 19, Kendall suggested that the state of manned-unmanned teaming and combat drone technologies is mature and that NGAD or another fighter, such as the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35, may serve as play callers for the drones.

“When I look at the technologies that exist, it’s pretty clear to me that they are ready to support the kind of capability that is really unprecedented,” Kendall said on Apr. 19. To counter China and other nations’ advanced militaries, however, the U.S. will also need to make its forward air bases more resistant to attack and harder to target, in part through the service’s Agile Combat Employment concept, Kendall said on Apr. 19.

On Apr. 19, Kendall said that the Air Force’s strategic programs are well underway but that conventional deterrents, including the service’s tactical aircraft, are a concern in future power projection scenarios.

While the Pentagon’s $770 billion budget is half of Russia’s global domestic product, the DoD budget is just 5 percent of China’s economy, Kendall said. China had learned from the U.S. success in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that the way to defeat the U.S. military may be by preventing it from reaching desired locations through the employment of long-range missiles against a relatively small number of high-value U.S. assets–satellites, aircraft carriers, forward air bases, and command and control/logistics nodes, he said.

In September 2020, former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said that an NGAD demonstrator had flown (Defense Daily, Sept. 15, 2020).