WASHINGTON — After undergoing a yearlong effort that explored the tactics and technologies needed to control the skies in the future, the Air Force is taking its first steps toward making its next fighter jet a reality.
The service has already begun preliminary work ahead of a 2017 analysis of alternatives that will shape the requirements and acquisition strategy for the F-35 follow on, which the Air Force been termed Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) or Penetrating Counter Air (PCA).
But Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who led the Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team (ECCT), emphasized that there are two major differences between the NGAD effort and its that of legacy fighter jets. The first is the relatively rapid method of acquiring it.
"We need to have something by the late 2020s," he said in an interview with Defense News. "I think a realistic timeline is somewhere around 2028 with key investments in some key technology areas, you'd be able to have some initial operational capability of a penetrating counter air capability."
The second difference relates to the recently concluded Air Superiority 2030 study, which made the case that the Air Force's future dominance will rest not on a single platform, such as a sixth generation fighter jet, but on an integrated, networked family of systems. That combination of penetrating and stand-off capabilities includes a fighter plane, but also a number of space, cyber and electronic warfare assets.
What that means is that the fighter jet of the future might look more like a sensor node than the dogfighters of the past, Grynkewich said. The service currently is conducting pre-AOA work at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to explore emerging technologies and hammer out potential NGAD requirements.
"They're looking at all of the tradespace of the various attributes," including lethality, survivability, range and payload, he said.
That team is also evaluating how the service can meet its requirements as quickly as possible. The Air Superiority 2030 ECCT found that the Air Force wouldn't be able to field an exquisite sixth-generation fighter through the normal procurement process any faster than 2040. By using rapid acquisition processes and parallel development, Grynkewich hopes to field an initial capability about a decade earlier.
Parallel development — where technologies such as an advanced engine, sensors and weapons progress on separate paths and later integrated into the fighter jet — will likely be key to the effort, he said. Once technologies are matured in the early stages of the program, the service could then use modeling and simulation to test whether those systems will generate the desired effects.
Integrating the various systems into the larger platform would be the most difficult and risky aspect of the process, but that risk can be minimized by prototyping, Grynkewich said.
"I would make them operationally realistic, relevant prototypes. 'Fieldable' prototypes is the term I would like to use. Whether we go there or not will be another tradespace discussion," he said. "You get it as mature as you can. You get these prototypes, you fly them around for a while. You do some testing on them.
"If you do something like that, if you don't change your requirements, if you don't set your sights on technologies that you know aren't going to mature on the timeline required," he said, "then you'll be in decent shape."
Penetrating Counter Air
The Air Force is trying to flush the words "sixth generation fighter" from its lexicon, Grynkewich said. Even the service’s initial terminology for an F-35 follow on — Next Generation Air Dominance — is being eschewed in favor of the label "Penetrating Counter Air."
"You start to have an argument over what does 'sixth gen' mean. Does it have laser beams, is it hypersonic? What is it? What does it look like? That’s not a useful conversation," he explained. "The more useful conversation is, what are the key attributes we need in order to gain and maintain air superiority in 2030?"
The Air Force is looking at incorporating sophisticated, cutting edge technologies like directed energy in the initial version of Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) or a future block upgrade. But ultimately, the service does not want to hold up the program so that a particular sensor or weapon can mature.
The outcome may not turn out to resemble a traditional fighter jet, Grynkewich said.
"I’ve gotten into a little hot water with my fighter pilot brethren over this, because I say things like, ‘Hey, it may not necessarily be a fighter,’" he said, adding that the aircraft will likely still receive the "F" designation reserved for fighter jets. "A typical fighter pilot for air superiority would say you need 9Gs, two tails, a gun, short range. That’s what fighters are. This is something that’s a little bit different and has some different attributes in my mind."
Requirements are not set in stone and could change during the AOA process, but Grynkewich believes that range and payload will be two of the most important attributes of the aircraft. NGAD, like other fighter jets, will need to be able to penetrate enemy air defenses and enter contested spaces, but it will also need to be able to operate at greater distances than current platforms, he said.
"And then, what’s the maneuverability, what’s the acceleration, what’s the top speed? There’s a whole host of attributes in the trade space to be explored," he said. "How exactly they play off each other and do we need something that can dogfight in the classical sense? I’m a little skeptical that’s where the tradespace will lead us."
The Air Force is off to a good start, but still has much work to do in terms of establishing what performance variables will take priority, said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Like Grynkewich, Gunzinger mentioned payload and range as two key characteristics of the aircraft.
"When you consider the kinds of geography that our future fighter aircraft may have to operate in, such as the Western Pacific, overcoming that tyranny of distance means that we probably will need combat aircraft for longer ranges," he said. A larger payload would also be vital in such scenarios because the jet will likely have to stay in the area of engagement for longer durations and have enough weapons capability to make an impact on enemy assets.
Both of those factors must also be weighed against the affordability of the aircraft and the speed to delivery.
"It won’t help if you come up with a perfect solution but it is so expensive we can’t afford to buy enough of them," Gunzinger said. "The Air Force needs to start buying new jets as swiftly as it can, and a future Penetrating Counter Air aircraft, a future fighter that isn’t going to deliver until the mid 2030s, isn’t going to help now. So that’s why I think something that can be delivered sooner than the 2030s and certainly is affordable is a very important factor."
In May, the Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team released classified and unclassified flight plans that detail desired technologies, their predicted funding requirements and potential concepts of operation. Although the ECCT stood down after former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh signed off on its findings in May, officials charged with executing portions of the flight plan will continue to brief the Air Force secretary and top generals on their progress, Grynkewich said.
The study spawned a number of experimentation efforts that could help inform future programs or concepts of operations. The first of those, Data to Decision, kicked off this spring and will run anywhere from three to five years, depending on its success, he said. The campaign will evaluate how the Air Force intakes data from its various sensors and communications devices, processes that information, analyzes it and shares it in order to better inform real time operations.
"We want to put that data into a cloud-like architecture," he said. "Then you have this application layer on top of that, and that layer is where I can build an app, just like I would for my iPhone. But now it’s in my F-22, where I go, ‘I need targeting information,’ and that app goes into the cloud, pulls the relevant information forward and off we go."
The first stages of the effort will be conducted through modeling and simulation, he said. "As you move forward, there will invariably be some opportunities to actually fly sensors, look at data links, look at communication links and see how they can network that family of capabilities together."
The second experimentation campaign, called Defeat Agile and Intelligent targets, will start in the next several months. During that effort, the Air Force will evaluate how it can use its inventory to take out highly maneuverable and lethal targets.
"I suspect, as they identify difficult targets that are part of an integrated air defense system, they’ll do some modeling and sim," he said. Live events may also be on the table, if funding permits.
If capability gaps are found through either experimentation campaign, that could inform future requirements for its next fighter or other technologies listed in the Air Superiority 2030 flight plan, he said.
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.