What does the NGAD super-fighter mean for F-35’s future?

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The article “What does the NGAD super-fighter mean for F-35 future?” was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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WARSAW, (BM) – The life cycle costs of the F-35 aircraft are still too high, and therefore the US Air Force will not be able to purchase these A-version aircraft in the estimated number of 1763 copies. If nothing can improve the current situation, then perhaps the Lightning II will be replaced by another structure. For example, the NGAD program [the Next-Generation Air Dominance] – says Will Roper, head of the US Air Force purchasing agency, quoted by Breaking Defense.

The problem is that the US Air Force will not purchase enough F-35As per year to acquire the assumed number by 2025. The second problem is keeping so many machines in service, which would be too expensive.

Of course, Will Roper’s statements are neither a sentence nor a massive attack on the F-35. Instead, it is about a kind of “motivating” Lockheed Martin to increase the work even more, primarily to reduce their operation cost, i.e., flight hours.

As the USAF purchasing agency’s outgoing head said, Lockheed Martin is still focusing on developing the F-35, including the F-35A that is of interest to him, but now focuses primarily on expanding its capabilities. It is precisely about creating a Block 4 version to which all current American planes had already upgraded. Let us add that in this version, Poland will also receive its 32 Harpies.

This work is going according to plan, and Roper does not criticize the machine’s ability as such. However, all of this generates additional costs. For example, it has recently turned out that upgrading the entire F-35A fleet to the Block 4 standard will cost USD 12.1 billion – USD 1.5 billion more than previously assumed. For this reason, Pentagon recently decided to transfer the 11 oldest Lightning IIs to the Aggressor Squadron. There they will be able to effectively pretend to be Chinese and Russian machines without the need to carry out expensive work on them, estimated [in their case, and they stand out from Block 4 the most] at 15 million USD per plane.

Too high maintenance costs mean that a relatively smaller number of Lightning IIs can be kept in service. Too low to successfully counter the Chinese in a possible future war. They are even considering that these planes beat Chinese generation 4 and 4+ fighters and are probably better than their generation 5.

The answer to this could be precisely the effect of the NGAD program effect, revealed in September last year, designed by new digital methods, as which the machine is already undergoing flight tests. He suggested that this machine could prove to be cheaper to maintain. It had built due to the Joint Strike Fighter’s painful experience and designed with more attention to operating costs. A revolution could also take place, for example, in the technologies of coatings absorbing radar radiation. For example, the flight hour of the F-22A Raptor is much more expensive than the newer F-35. Further progress could be made in the following years in NGAD, especially that it’s still undisclosed silhouette may be devoid of many surfaces generating additional surfaces for the reflection of radar radiation, e.g., vertical fins. It is also possible that the designer will create a more cost-effective drive for NGAD.

The creation of a multi-purpose version of the NGAD may also cause competition between the centers that produce them, which will lead to the creation of cost-effective solutions through apparent competition for the customer. Roper himself mentioned it, which suggests between the lines that NGAD is not the work and Lockheed Martin would not produce it. In this situation, Boeing and Northrop Grumman would remain among the most considerable “suspects” of this. The latter is involved in the B-21 Raider strategic bomber program. Does NGAD use technologies created within its framework?

NGAD and the facility managed to create it are not necessarily an enemy of the F-35A. As Roper says, the Kessel Run team belonging to the US Air Force is now fully involved in creating a new logistics system for the F-35 – ODIN [Operational Integrated Data Network]. ODIN will replace the ALIS system designed by Lockheed Martin and significantly reduce its costs, increasing the chances of being a mass multi-role USAF aircraft.

Lockheed Martin also has something to say about it. The company understands the problem that the cost of maintaining the aircraft is too high and is doing everything in its power to reduce it, he said. According to the report, it has been reduced by 40% in the last five years.

Considering that the effects of the NGAD program are, after all, a song of the future, it isn’t easy to assess whether and to what extent it could replace the F-35A. And even if it is only machined, the production is planned for at least a few years. Currently, the flight time of the F-35A estimates at 42-44 thousand. USD. In the case of the F-16C, it is approx. 25 thousand dollars. The latter aircraft is recognizing as one of the most cost-effective in the world. Theoretically, the Pentagon should have reduced the cost of an F-35A’s flight time to the price of an F-16’s hour.

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