Ukraine War Underscores Need for Sustained Investments in U.S. Air Superiority


By Richard Weitz

The Ukraine War and other recent conflicts highlight the imperative of preserving U.S. air superiority.

Ukraine demonstrates the challenges militaries face when they do not enjoy air superiority. In that conflict, advanced drones have provided the most effective combat air support for both the Russian and Ukrainian ground forces, while air and missiles defenses, along with electronic warfare (EW) tools, have degraded the effectiveness of most strike weapons.

That neither Russia nor Ukraine possesses advanced air superiority fighters explains the stalemated nature of the overall conflict.

Ukrainian leaders rightly lament how they have to execute a major counteroffensive against a larger aggressor force without air superiority—a challenge no NATO military has ever had to conduct thanks to U.S. air superiority since World War II.

Preserving this critical U.S. advantage is essential but not inevitable.

Under development for more than a decade, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Family of Systems will serve as the foundation of future U.S. air superiority.

The NGAD portfolio will probably include a sixth-generation air superiority fighter, a network of partnered uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft, and a collection of cutting-edge technologies optimized for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.

The NGAD fighter, likely crewed, will replace the F-22 Raptor, which originated at the end of the Cold War, before the widespread use of modular architectures, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the latest munitions and electronic technologies.

The plane will be the first U.S. air superiority fighter designed for Pacific-wide combat operations, which require greater range and payload than the F-22 or other available fighters.

The Next Generation Adaptive Propulsion program could provide the plane with adaptive cycle engines that could automatically switch between high-performance thrust-maximizing and fuel-efficient range-extending flight.

Greater use of composite materials will also boost the plane’s range by making it lighter.

Each NGAD fighter reportedly will control about half a dozen CCA drones. Unlike the largely autonomous drones envisaged by the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative, the auxiliary CCA systems will primarily support and extend the crewed fighter missions, operating as human-machine teams.

Though much of the work on the NGAD suite remains classified to prevent China and other malign actors from exposing their technologies through cyber espionage, these “loyal wingman platforms” will likely operate both semi-autonomously and as “drone swarms” to overwhelm adversaries.

Equipped with modular packages, the multi-mission drones will provide critical capabilities such as counter-EW, sensor fusion, diversionary decoys, and air defense suppression.

Think of a Matrix movie, whereby operators can rapidly upload advanced software capabilities to these planes in-flight to overcome adversaries’ countermeasures as they become evident. Should China or some other adversary unexpectedly display a novel anti-air weapon, AI-empowered human-machine teams would quickly negate them.

From a longer-term perspective, the crewed plane and the uncrewed drones will be upgradable through a spiral development process in which their open architectures will be continuously enriched with new capabilities as they are developed.

This capability could prove critical to outmatch China, which is also applying AI advances to its military forces and developing a NGAD-like fighter suite. Seeing their evident advantages, other European and Asian countries are also planning to develop sixth-generation planes.

Ironically, the greatest immediate threat to the NGAP is not China but the U.S. Congress, which enacted the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act and repeated continuous resolutions. Whereas the latter compels the military to make arbitrary cuts, the latter makes sustaining long-term cutting-edge programs onerous.

Suppliers need sustained funding to invest in the people and projects required for the research and development of large, forward-looking technological superiority programs like the NGAD.

Air Force leaders have warned that congressional budget cuts might force it to make “tough decisions” on NGAD. While Congress has dealt the Air Force a bad hand, the Air Force cannot pull the plug on this critical initiative.

Establishing a “National Land-Based Deterrence Fund” would, along with the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, would help preserve both indispensable strategic deterrent forces along with critical conventional capabilities.

As the Strategic Posture Commission report noted, a vital means of avoiding a nuclear war is to enhance U.S. conventional capabilities.

Without the NGAD, other platforms, such as older fighters or penetrating bombers, may not operate in highly contested environments, rendering these investments essentially useless when they are most needed.

As force multipliers, the NGAP human-team role will have the vital role of enabling even the most advanced systems, such as the new B-21 Raider, to overcome the integrated air-and-missile defense networks of China, Russia, and other potential adversaries.

Evidence of the massive scale of China’s military buildup continues to accrue. The best means to avoid a war with China is to deter it in the first place.

Featured photo: The F-22 is to be replaced by a “family of systems”.

Credit Photo: Chloe Shanes/U.S. Air Force.

Editor’s Note: Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently noted with regard to the ripple effects of the shadows surrounding the USAF program:

The future is starting to look really uncertain for the United States Air Force NGAD program. With a growing emphasis on lower-cost autonomous ‘Collaborative Combat Aircraft’ (‘CCAs’) to enable greater mass, combined with a lack of confidence in key U.S. aerospace primes, and sheer lack of money (NGAD unit cost is currently a ridiculous US$300m) to buy sufficient numbers of aircraft, this may mean NGAD never gets off the ground.

That would also have significant implications for U.S. allies’ long-term plans, including for the RAAF, which, according to the 2024 IIP, will need to replace its F/A-18F Super Hornets and E/A-18G Growlers by the late 2030s / early 2040s.

What are our options if NGAD is off the table?

Obviously we keep flying our 72 F-35As, progressively upgrade them, and also invest in large numbers of CCAs like the Boeing MQ-28A Ghost Bat?

But we should also be open to programs like the UK-Japan-Italian Global Combat Air Programme which will be producing a crewed sixth generation combat aircraft that could worth with CCAs and ultimately replace the F-35As, perhaps by the late 2040s.

If NGAD were dropped, and if a similar fate was visited on the US Navy’s F/A-XX for similar reasons, then that could force us down the GCAP path.

Given the importance of building closer ties with Japan and the opportunities within AUKUS to pursue advanced capabilities in Pillar 2 with the UK – that would not necessarily be a bad choice.