WASHINGTON — In its quest to dominate the air battlefield of the future, the US Air Force may look to replace the traditional fighter jet with a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms.
The Air Force on Thursday rolled out the initial findings of a team tasked last year to explore options for maintaining air superiority in the future battle space. The group, the Air Superiority 2030 Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team, found that the best path forward is developing a "family of systems" to address the range of threats in a highly contested environment.
As near-peer adversaries like Russia and China continue to close the capability gap, building long-range missiles, anti-satellite and anti-aircraft weapons designed to foil US forces' ability to penetrate, the Air Force must find new ways to dominate the air.
"The threat environment will continue to proliferate over the next 15 to 20 years, and we will face them in places and in spaces on this globe and above this globe that we don't even anticipate right now," said Air Superiority 2030 lead Col. Alex Grynkewich on Thursday during an event hosted by the Air Force Association.
This family of systems, or "system of systems," approach is the Air Force's answer to the idea the US military is losing its advantage. The new strategy will include both stand-off capability and penetrating forces, with increased dependence on space and cyber to infiltrate enemy defenses and defend our own networks, Grynkewich said.
"What the adversary has done is built a whole bunch of different systems that are networked together . . . we learned over the years it takes a network to fight a network," Grynkewich said. "It takes a network and an integrated system of systems or a family of systems in order to handle that highly contested environment in the future."
The Air Force set aside money in its fiscal year 2017 budget request for experimentation and prototyping in the area of air superiority, Lt. Gen. James "Mike" Holmes, deputy chief of staff for plans and requirements, said during the event. The team will use this funding to explore concepts like the arsenal plane, hypersonic weapons, directed energy, autonomy, and electronic attack, the officials said.
But will the family of systems include a traditional fighter jet? Grynkewich seems to think not.
The Air Superiority 2030 team is trying to move away from the concept of a "sixth generation fighter," a term that has long been used to describe the follow-on to the fifth-generation F-35, Grynkewich said. Even the word "fighter" may be outdated, he noted, preferring "sensor-shooter" or "node" in a larger battle network.
"Fighters are typically short range – we've got to field, to be able to operate from range," Grynkewich said. "Do you put the sensors on the platform or do you disaggregate them somewhere else? . . . It starts to look like something very different from something that we would traditionally think of as 'sixth-gen.'"
The Air Force had planned to begin working on a joint analysis of alternatives with the Navy to explore a follow-on fighter jet solution, an F-X for the Air Force and an FA-XX for the Navy. But while the Navy went ahead with its AOA this year, the Air Force opted to delay the F-X effort, the service told reporters in February.
The one-year delay is meant to enable the Air Force to reevaluate its path forward, Holmes told reporters after the April 7 event. As it was originally envisioned, F-X would have turned into a 20 to 30-year development program, he stressed. Instead, the Air Force plans to start an AOA in January, 2017, to look at options for "what we can get short of a 20 or 30 year leap," he said. The effort, called "Next Generation Air Dominance," is planned to be complete by the middle of 2018, Grynkewich said.
The Air Force will work to find the most effective combination of speed and maneuverability, payload, and range for the platform, Holmes said. The right level of stealth, or low-observability, is also a factor.
As to the broader Air Superiority 2030 effort, the officials offered few concrete answers to what the force of the future will actually look like, saying there is more work to be done. Grynkewich's team will develop a flight plan that will inform a variety of AOAs over the next few years, including Next Generation Air Dominance, Holmes said during the presentation.
Holmes' "aspirational goal" is to have an "operationally representative configuration" of the envisioned air superiority strategy in place by 2025, he said. But, "it's not completely in our hands," he stressed.
Still, it is critical the Air Force move quickly in order to keep pace with the threat, the officials warned. The service should take advantage of the current push for acquisition reform in Congress and the Pentagon, Grynkewich said.
"The need for strategic agility is real," Grynkewich stressed. "There's an operational imperative now that we have to do this because if we don't, we're at risk."