Recently, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has revealed new details concerning the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program — a highly classified project. He disclosed that the United States Air Force commenced the development of a new generation fighter aircraft as part of the NGAD program three years ago. This initiative drew inspiration from the covert, multi-agency X-plane program. Financed by the Air Force, Navy, and DARPA, the X-plane project successfully crafted prototypes that effectively showcased the required technologies.
Secretary Kendall also shed light on the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, which is due to commence once the fiscal 2024 defense bill receives approval. The CCA program aims to facilitate cooperative operations between manned and unmanned platforms, allowing them to operate in synchronized formations. It is anticipated that this program will receive funding totaling $5.8 billion over the next five years. The Air Force's intent is to acquire 200 NGAD fighters alongside 1,000 CCA aircraft, which will seamlessly integrate with sixth-generation combat aircraft.
While the NGAD fighters are expected to carry a price tag of several hundred million dollars per unit, the CCA aircraft are projected to cost around a quarter to a third of the current unit cost of an F-35. The approximate expense for an F-35 stands between $20.6 million and $27.5 million. Importantly, the CCA aircraft have been designed to endure combat losses without significant operational ramifications, emphasizing their status as resilient assets. The Air Force is still in the process of finalizing the requirements for the CCA program, which includes determining range and payload characteristics. Targeting drones poses a significant challenge for opponents as they struggle to discern between armed and unarmed ones. To bolster their survivability, researchers are considering the possibility of equipping drones with the capability to operate independently of runways. According to Kendall, the Air Force is actively working towards rapidly deploying the initial CCA in significant quantities. The ultimate aim is to transition to the new version promptly, bypassing the typically lengthy development period required for conventional aircraft.