Out of the black world: America’s future fighters

David C Isby continues the story of America’s new-generation fighters

IS THERE going to be at least one more manned fighter designed and put into service with both the US Air Force and the US Navy? Both services have so far examined a number of overlapping – in subject matter and duration of consideration – concepts, including the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) concept, Penetrating Counter Air aircraft and, more recently, the Air Superiority Family of Systems, and the Navy’s own NGAD and F/A-XX. These concepts will need to yield operational capabilities by the expected end of service life of the current fighters used to secure air dominance – the Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the Navy’s Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet – between the mid-2030s and early 2040s.

How to not build a fighter

Experience suggests that it is already past time to start turning concepts into the aircraft required as a future air dominance capability. It is likely that, as with the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, classified programmes are being relied on to reduce development time. It was some 26 years between the start of the Joint Strike Fighter programme to the Lockheed Martin F-35A’s first combat over Syria, in the hands of the Israeli Air and Space Force, and the F-35B’s first combat over Afghanistan with the US Marine Corps. Twenty-six years were required despite a development process that accepted a high degree of concurrency to get the aircraft into service quickly.

Development of the F-35 ended up taking more years and costing more money than anyone had projected. This is especially important for the Air Force, which has given notice that it will have to curtail its planned procurement of 1,763 F-35As extending into the 2030s, unless sustainment costs come down. Both the Air Force and the Navy are hesitant about committing to another major joint fighter programme.

Compounding the difficulty of setting out future high technology programmes is the increased secrecy imposed by the Department of Defense, alleging concerns with alerting great power competitors.

These restrictions are especially likely to include technologies developed in classified black world programmes. New air superiority aircraft may be subjected to the same restrictive security as the B-21 programme. There are likely to be capabilities – possibly even flying technology demonstrators or prototypes – that have never appeared in the open press.

The fact that there is no current air dominance procurement programme – especially in the Air Force, with its force of some 120 combat-coded F-22 Raptors likely to be insufficient to meet emerging great power threats – suggests that successors may come in from the black world.

New approaches

The Navy’s concept requires a new-generation aircraft able to fill the space on board its aircraft carriers currently occupied by F/A-18 Super Hornets. The Navy issued its F/A-XX requirement in June 2008 and a request for information in 2012 for a design that could be operational by 2030: this does not seem to have progressed to a development programme. Instead, the Navy reportedly started an analysis of alternatives (AoA) study in early 2016, which is scheduled to be completed by 2019.

If a new F/A-XX emerges from the AoA, the design would have to function as part of a networked carrier strike group that will include an increasing number of unmanned aircraft and improved versions of long-range surfaceto- air and surface-to-surface missiles that have been a part of naval warfighting for decades. The Navy’s ongoing focus on an expeditionary network that goes beyond its aircraft carriers means any next-generation fighter must also be integrated into a larger, joint and coalition, architecture.

An Air Force requirement for an F-22 follow-on was approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) in 2011. However, rather than moving to meet this requirement, the Air Force has been devoting time and effort to helping decide what should be the next step, looking at options in its Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan document, produced by the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team led by Brigadier General Alex Grynkewich and published in 2016.

However, the Flight Plan was not about a sixth-generation fighter. Indeed, the document considered the generational paradigm obsolete. Instead it aimed to identify – rather than planning for or building – capabilities needed to solve operational or strategic problems in the limited time available, requiring acquisition agility and parallel development of technologies that could be inserted into the programme at the right time. Achieving this will require synchronising multiple development efforts and using prototyping and experimentation to manage risk. The end result may include a manned fighter design, but its envisioned networked air superiority capability is unlikely to be limited to one.

Speaking at a briefing in Washington DC soon after the Flight Plan had been completed, General Grynkewich said: “Future dominance cannot rest on a single platform.”

The Flight Plan’s multiple systems of systems could be networked together and may include a manned fighter – as part of the Air Superiority Family of Systems – but is also likely to include sensors, missiles, command and control nodes that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned aircraft capable of both autonomous operations and mannedunmanned teaming.

The Flight Plan also considered capabilities that make flying air superiority missions possible, such as logistics and base defence. The US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein is a strong proponent of thinking in terms of multiplatform networks that deliver required warfighting effects, rather than building a new aircraft that replaces an older type, as previous generations of Air Force fighters have done. The Air Force is following the Flight Plan’s guidance for an enterprise-wide approach to air dominance, and has created an Air Superiority Family of Systems budget line from which the AoA and other projects were funded.

This was included in the FY2019 budget request with $550 million, planned to increase to $1.4 billion by FY2020. Other programmes are looking at technologies that are likely to be applied to future air dominance aircraft, including Autonomy Capability Team 3, an Air Force Research Laboratory programme to apply AI in air vehicles used for air combat.

Project Avatar is a programme run by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office working to enable semiautonomous UAVs that can be teamed with manned aircraft. Other programmes are working on autonomous UAVs, including loyal wingmen (that would use manned-unmanned teaming with similar performance air vehicles flying alongside manned combat aircraft), new propulsion technology enabling supersonic cruise, AI, new materials and technologies applicable to the air dominance mission.

Even if the Air Force and Navy do not want a joint fighter programme, it is likely that most of these technologies will be used across service lines, and will require an unprecedented degree of cooperation across service lines even if a Joint Program Office is not set up.

Next steps

The next step, translating generalised guidance – such as that in the Flight Plan – into options that will be funded by the planned research and development budget can move towards procurement, the first of which is the Air Superiority Family of Systems AoA study.

Like the Navy’s AoA, the Air Superiority Family of Systems AoA study will look at manned, unmanned and optionally manned air vehicles. It began in early 2017 and was to have been completed in mid-2018, but has apparently been delayed.

Cost will be hugely important in shaping what comes next for US fighter aircraft. A study released by the US Congressional Budget Office in the autumn of 2018 estimated that an F-22 Raptor replacement could have a flyaway unit cost of $300 million. This a reflection of its anticipated limited production run – the study assumed 414 aircraft – as well as incorporating advanced technologies.

A possible hybrid

One suggested approach is for a new manned fighter that would be ready to replace the F-22 Raptor and the F/A-18 Super Hornet while advanced multi-platform networked solutions become more mature. Lockheed Martin reportedly has made such a proposal based around a fighter design it proposed to Japan as a future fighter programme replacement for the Mitsubishi F-2, and as a substitute for its indigenous F-3 programme. It is reportedly based on the F-22 design, but updated with exportable low-observable and sensor technologies derived from those on the F-35 Lightning II.

For US customers, such a design would not be limited by what is exportable, but could include low-observable technology being used for the B-21 programme, which is considerably more advanced than that used on the F-35. No official interest has been expressed. In the final analysis, both the Air Force and the Navy have so much at stake, in terms of their institutional identify and culture, as well as the capabilities they have to develop and provide to combatant commanders to fight America’s conflicts, that it is likely but by no means certain there will be another manned fighter.