Loyal Wingmen vs NGAD: the US Air Force could favor combat drones for 2030

Launched in 2015, the Next Generation Air Dominance program, or NGAD, represented, until today, one of the major programs of the US Air Force. Like the F-22 in the 90s, which can be replaced, this aims to provide the USAF with an air superiority fighter capable of imposing itself, for both decades following its entry into service, against all devices that could be produced in the world, in particular by Russia or China.

The downside of these requirements is that the American fighter promises to be expensive, and even very expensive. According to the Secretary of the Air Force, Franck Kendall jr, this must cost “several hundred million dollars” per cell, knowing that “several”, here, certainly does not represent 2 or 3.

In fact, the US Air Force only planned to acquire a limited number, around 200 examples, to replace the F-22 which, although remaining one of the best, if not the best aircraft of air superiority in the world to date, is to be withdrawn from service from the end of the decade.

In any case, nothing suggested, in the official speech, that this emblematic program of the modernization of the US Air Force, with the B-21 Raider bomber, the Sentinel ICBM and the Awacs E-7 Wedgetail, may be threatened. However, this is what the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General David Allvin, and the SECAF, Franck Kendall jr., suggested last week.

Will the NGAD program pay the price for the US Air Force's urgent need for Loyal Wingmen drones?

However, the NGAD program seemed, until now, to be on track, budgetary as well as operational and political. To the point that the award contract, for the construction of the first prototypes, was expected this year, Lockheed Martin and Boeing opposing each other on this issue.

NGAD Loyal Wingmen
300 US Air Force F-35As will be modified to control CCA combat drones.

Last week, on the other hand, significantly eroded these certainties. Indeed, the two authorities who direct the US Air Force, the SECAF, F. Kendall, and the Chief of Staff, General D. Alnvin, have both made statements suggesting that the program could pay for the urgent need for combat drones to accompany his hunters.

 » Deliberations are still ongoing, no decision has been made. We're looking at a lot of very difficult options that we have to consider ", when questioned by a journalist about rumors of threats to the NGAD program, during a round table organized at the Pentagon with the specialized press.

And added that the US Air Force was engaged in a process to design and produce, but also to use, combat drones, more specifically, the Loyal Wingmen which must escort and extend the capabilities of its fighter aviation, in the next few years. Additionally, now that the process has begun, the USAF is even discovering new ways to employ this equipment, which opens up new opportunities, according to General Allvin.

Franck Kendall, for his part, declared on this subject, to the reference site, Aviationweek.com, that it was necessary to maintain an open mind to respond to the issues. More specifically, according to the political head of the Air Force, budgetary constraints force the USAF to consider its priorities differently, which may lead to certain trade-offs that will have to be accepted.

Free up short-term budgetary resources to accelerate the transition to combat drones

The fact is, the big priority, as far as American tactical aviation is concerned, now seems to be the rapid, but structured, entry into service of a growing fleet of drones, covering the entire spectrum of use.

USAF General Alvill
General Allvin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the US Air Force, speaks at the Air and Space Force Association in Arlington.

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