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Air Force General: If US doesn’t hurry to build new fighter, China will

An F-35C in flight. (U.S. Department of Defense/Released)

A top U.S. Air Force general wonders whether the U.S. has the “courage and focus” to build a next-generation warplane to counter China.

Gen. Mark Kelly, who oversees his service’s fighter jets and drones as head of Air Combat Command, gave full-throated support for the highly classified Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, project.

“I, for one, am confident that the technology and the test points have developed to where NGAD technology will get fielded,” Kelly told reporters Friday during a virtual Air Force Association conference.

“I’m confident that the adversaries on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war,” he said. “What I don’t know, and what we’re working with our great partners, 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.”

Last September, Air Force leaders revealed that the NGAD office had secretly developed and flight-tested a new type of warplane. Officials said digital engineering technology allowed them to design, assemble, and fly the new aircraft far faster than previous planes.

Congress has signaled skepticism about the classified project, most recently cutting $140 million from the Air Force’s 2021 budget request.

“It’s a keen focus [and] it’s a keen capability,” Kelly said. “We just need to make sure we keep our narrative up and articulate the unambiguous benefit we’ve had as a nation to have that leading-edge technology ensuring we have air superiority for the nation and the joint force.”

Air Force and other Pentagon leaders are currently reviewing the types and number of combat aircraft that they believe are needed 15 years from now. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, said that the F-35, the newest fighter jet in the U.S. arsenal, would be the “cornerstone” of that future fleet. But at the same time, he said the review would determine if the Air Force would buy 1,763, F-35s — a number conceived by military planners in 1997.

During the briefing, Kelly questioned whether Lockheed Martin would be able to meet a goal of lower F-35 flight per hour costs to $25,000 by 2025 from about $36,000 per hour today.

“I’m not brimming with confidence, [but] I haven’t lost confidence,” he said.

Defense officials, Kelly said, are coming up with a “plan of action and milestones to achieve” the cost goal.

Kelly said the other branches of the military and the Pentagon war plans rely on the Air Force ensuring American forces on the ground are protected from enemy planes.

“Since 1953, the Air Force has ensured that no piece of iron has come out of the sky to hit any U.S. servicemen,” Kelly said. “We’d like to keep that going for decades to come.”

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