A top US Air Force official has expressed apprehension about whether the country will be able to develop the sixth-generation fighter jet before China fields it and uses it against America.
Commander of the U.S. US Air Combat Command General Mark D. Kelly warned that China’s People’s Liberation Army could field sixth-generation fighter aircraft before the United States Military, with the East Asian state being the only one other than the U.S. to widely deploy indigenously developed fifth-generation fighters today.
The U.S. Air Force is expected to field one and possibly two classes of sixth-generation fighters which are currently under development, with its more prominent development effort known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
“I for one am confident … that the [NGAD] technology will get fielded,” and that adversaries who go against it will “suffer a very tough day, and a tough week and a tough war,” General Kelly stated. “What I don’t know … 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.
He stressed that although the U.S. Military maintained a “keen focus” on next-generation technologies, “we just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the biggest benefit we’ve had as a nation to have leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority.”
While the U.S. developed all prior generations of jet fighter with conflict with the Soviet Union and its defence clients in mind, the sharp decline of the post-Soviet Russian economy and China’s rise to become the world’s largest economy has led to a shift in the primary target the new generation of fighters is being developed to compete against.
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Regarding the importance of being able to maintain air superiority – the role for which sixth generation fighters are primarily being developed – General Kelly stated that the U.S. Military was “designed” to operate with control of the air and “less designed to operate it without it.”
The fact that U.S. forces were not well prepared for a war in which they could lose to enemy fighters has been repeatedly highlighted by analysts for over two decades and could make the fallout from an inability to contend with enemy air superiority fighters all the more serious.
The general further highlighted ongoing issues with the F-35 fifth-generation fighter program, which he indicated was likely to fail to reach goals for a lowering of operational costs to $25,000 per hour by 2025.
The F-35 is currently the only post-fourth generation fighter in production in the Western world, and although it was designed to be inexpensive and to be produced in very large numbers like its predecessor the F-16 its maintenance requirements and operational costs have been prohibitively high – currently around four times as high as the F-16.
This has led the U.S. Air Force to consider cutting over 45% of planned F-35 orders. Although the F-35 entered service in the U.S. Air Force from 2015, it is still very far from ready for high intensity combat and has not been approved for mass production by the Pentagon due to ongoing performance issues.