WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, who leads Air Combat Command, wishes he could tell the public more about the service’s secretive sixth-generation fighter program, Next Generation Air Dominance.

Last September, the Air Force disclosed that a full-scale NGAD demonstrator had already flown, signaling that the program is further along than most outside aerospace analysts predicted.

Kelly — a major supporter of the NGAD program — isn’t sure when the service will be able to divulge more about the highly classified system of systems, which could include new manned and unmanned aircraft, advanced weapons, and sensors.

“I’m as keen to get as much as feasibly possible [into the open], commensurate with program security requirements, because I think frankly the more people know [about] the requirement and the capability, the better we will be from a programmatic standpoint,” he said.

Defense News caught up with Kelly during an Aug. 16 interview. Here’s what he had to say about one of the most advanced combat aircraft under development by the service, while also sharing his thoughts on one of the oldest planes still in operation.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been vocal about how important it is to keep the NGAD program fully funded and on schedule. Why is that program so exciting to you from an operational standpoint?

The peer threat for the last 70 years has been Russia or the Soviet Union, and the technologies we faced included a very limited section of the electromagnetic spectrum. So if you look at the design criteria — what shaped the F-15 and the F-22 fighter jet development in terms of threat, available technology and environment — it was the Soviet Union, European basing and aerospace, and front-quarter, mechanically scanned X-band sensors.

We need to move beyond just the Russian threat, move beyond just European basic airspace engagement ranges, and beyond ‘80s and ‘90s technology and defeating a mechanically scanned, single-band sensor. So while Russia remains a threat, we now face new adversaries, longer distances in the Asia-Pacific region and a much wider utilization of the electromagnetic spectrum. That requires long-range capabilities that can sense, shoot and thrive in a multispectral environment.

What challenges does the NGAD program face?

I can think of three that begin with C: classification, cost and COVID-19.

The high classification makes it impossible to discuss in an open forum for the most part. COVID makes it tough to get really important people in small, confined spaces like a vault that we need to talk to, just because of the concerns of the pandemic. And then nothing that’s high-tech is cheap. But when it comes to NGAD, it’s not cheap, but it’s significantly cheaper than losing.

We haven’t heard much about the Air Force’s plans to replace its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, which includes the E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance jet, E-3 airborne warning and control plane, and unmanned assets like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. What is the plan there?

With respect to some of our [ISR] platforms — for example, like AWACS, JSTARS, U-2 — just like with the fighter fleet, very few of them are young. Look at specifically the AWACS and JSTARS: They’re 707 airframes, and there’s exactly zero airlines around the globe that fly the 707 as a money-producing airline because you can’t. If you look at a global supply chain trying to sustain a 707 airframe, compared to sustaining a P-8, which is on a 737 airframe: There’s 6,800 737s around the globe with a global supply chain.

If anybody asked me what’s my priority in the ISR portfolio, I have to say the AWACS. We frankly have to be wide-eyed. We have to acknowledge that unlike our closest treaty allies — the Australians and the [U.K. Royal Air Force]— we do not field a cutting-edge, air moving target indicator, or AMTI, capability like they do with their E-7A Wedgetail.

In my opinion, you’re not a true fifth-gen Air Force until your fifth-gen fighters have fifth-gen weapons and fifth-gen sensing, like an AMTI [aircraft] to go with them. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the surveillance piece and the weapons piece to go with our platform piece.

Other Air Force officials advocated for the service to buy Wedgetail, but the necessary funding never ended up in the budget. Meanwhile, the AWACS inventory is only getting older. How long can the service go without replacing AWACS?

It’s not a trivial piece of equipment that our great airmen sustain — and when I say airmen, I mean from the airman first class on the flight line to [maintainers in] the back shops to the great depot workers at Tinker [Air Force Base in Oklahoma]. They’re the miracle workers every day.

We are in the single-digit number of years before that airplane votes with its wings and votes with its metal structure that it’s just not viable to operate and sustain any longer.

To your point about Wedgetail, I frankly don’t know exactly where our budgets are going to fall when it hits the reality of what we actually have [available]. But I can tell you unambiguously that it stays pretty much close to my No. 1 requirement as a force provider.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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