WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to award a contract for its Next Generation Air Dominance platform in 2024.

The service said in a Thursday release that it sent industry a classified solicitation for an engineering and manufacturing development contract for the secretive and highly classified NGAD program.

The release of this solicitation formally begins the process of selecting a contractor to build the Air Force’s next advanced fighter system, which will replace the F-22 Raptor. The solicitation came with requirements the Air Force expects companies to include in their NGAD designs.

However, this solicitation and source-selection process does not include the drone wingmen the Air Force refers to as collaborative combat aircraft, the service said.

“The NGAD platform is a vital element of the air dominance family of systems, which represents a generational leap in technology over the F-22, which it will replace,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in the release. “NGAD will include attributes such as enhanced lethality and the abilities to survive, persist, interoperate and adapt in the air domain, all within highly contested operational environments.”

“No one does this better than the U.S. Air Force, but we will lose that edge if we don’t move forward now,” Kendall added.

The Air Force has repeatedly said its concept for an NGAD platform will not exactly mirror a traditional crewed fighter such as the F-22 or F-35, but will instead be a “family of systems” that incorporates a crewed aircraft component as well as collaborative combat aircraft. Increased sensor capabilities as well as advanced abilities to connect with satellites, other aircraft or other assets could also be part of NGAD’s family of systems.

The Air Force on Thursday said its acquisition strategy for NGAD “will invigorate and broaden the industrial base to deliver rapid and innovative warfighting capabilities.”

As the service develops NGAD, the statement said, it will use lessons learned from other recent acquisition programs, and will use open-architecture standards. The service said this will allow it to take advantage of as much competition as possible throughout NGAD’s life cycle, create a larger and more responsive industrial base, and cut down on maintenance and sustainment costs.

The Air Force said other technical and programmatic details on NGAD are classified “to protect operational and technological advantages.”

Kendall and other service officials said last year they hope to start fielding the crewed component of NGAD by the end of the decade, with collaborative combat aircraft possibly arriving first.

In June 2022, Kendall raised eyebrows when he said at a Heritage Foundation event that the service had “now started on the EMD program to do the development aircraft that we’re going to take into production” — a remark that some took to mean NGAD was already in the engineering and manufacturing development stage.

Kendall later walked back those comments, explaining that he was using the term EMD in a colloquial sense. He said NGAD was still being designed and had not yet gone through the Milestone B review process.

Milestone B marks the point where a program’s technology maturation phase finishes and an acquisition program formally starts in which the service takes its preliminary design and focuses on system integration, manufacturing processes and other details ahead of production.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email to Defense News that when the source-selection process finishes, NGAD will go to the service’s top acquisition official — who is now Andrew Hunter — for the Milestone B decision to award the EMD contract to the winning company.

Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have expressed interest in pursuing the Air Force’s NGAD contract.

It’s unclear how much the contact would be worth, but Kendall told lawmakers in an April 2022 hearing that each aircraft could cost “multiple” hundreds of millions of dollars, though he did not get specific about the potential price tag.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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