WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s secretive and highly classified Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program has started its crucial engineering and manufacturing development phase, Secretary Frank Kendall said Wednesday.

In a discussion at the Heritage Foundation, Kendall said the Air Force began early experimental prototyping on NGAD in 2015, when he was the Pentagon’s top acquisition official. This was essentially an X-plane program, he said, designed to reduce risk and develop key technologies needed for the production program.

The technology has continued to progress, he said, and the NGAD effort is now envisioned as a “family of systems” incorporating several elements, including a handful of autonomous drone aircraft accompanying the manned aircraft in formation.

It typically takes the Air Force’s acquisition programs almost seven years to reach initial operating capability from the beginning of the EMD phase. Although the service has already been working on NGAD for about that long, because it just recently started work on the EMD phase, it will still be several more years before the program will reach IOC.

“The clock really didn’t start in 2015; it’s starting roughly now,” Kendall said. “We think we’ll have capability by the end of the decade.”

But NGAD could also be the most expensive aircraft program in history. Kendall told lawmakers in April each piloted aircraft under the program would likely cost several hundred million dollars apiece.

The Air Force asked Congress for almost $1.7 billion for NGAD in its fiscal 2023 budget, including $133 million in research, development, testing and evaluation funding.

Kendall also indicated in his remarks Wednesday he wants the Air Force’s acquisition programs to more quickly move to production. Too often, he said, it takes years to reach that stage, and he’s instructed the Air Force to set up programs in a way that get meaningful capabilities to airmen as soon as possible.

“I’m not interested in demos and experiments unless they are a necessary step on the road to real capability,” Kendall said. “What we tend to do is do a quick demo, and then we have to start an EMD or development program and wait several more years, because we didn’t start the developmental function. If we don’t need it to reduce risk, we should go right to development for production and get there as quickly as we can.”

And, he said, he has such a “sense of urgency” about the need to get cutting-edge capabilities, like the uncrewed combat aircraft accompanying manned aircraft, into the field that he’s willing to accept more risk.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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