WASHINGTON ― America is developing a pair of two new high-tech fighter aircraft, and you probably haven’t heard much about them.
Under the leadership of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Pentagon has clamped down on talking about cutting-edge capabilities in development, citing concerns about giving potential foes too much information.
Nevertheless, some details have emerged about the ongoing programs, one each from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. And in light of European plans for new fighter designs, it is worth revisiting what is, and isn’t, known about the American efforts.
In 2016, the U.S. Air Force unveiled its “Air Superiority 2030” study, which posited that although the service would need a new air superiority fighter jet — called Penetrating Counter Air — as soon as the 2030s, it would be just as important that the new plane fit into a "family of systems” of space, cyber, electronic warfare and other enabling technologies.
The service then initiated an analysis of alternatives in 2017 to further drill down on Penetrating Counter Air concepts and to refine its requirements, but the service’s top uniformed officer sounds interested in a disaggregated mission aproach.
“When you look at — through the lens of the network — and you look at air superiority as a mission, as a family-of-systems approach, you can see why you don’t hear me talking a lot about a replacement, A for B,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told Defense News in March.
“Because the replacement may not be a single platform, it maybe two or three different kinds of capabilities and systems. And so as we look at air superiority in the future, ensuring that we’re advancing to stay ahead of the adversary, we’re looking at all those options.”
Mark Tapper, the Air Force’s special adviser to the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, echoed Goldfein’s comments during a June 26 panel. “It’s not necessarily about a new airplane or a new platform. It’s about how you take the power of things that operate in space, things that operate in cyberspace, things that operate in air and terrestrially and subsurface to create effects in the battlespace. So how do you leverage the power of all those data streams and fit them together in new ways?” he said.
Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, called the nature of the U.S. program “the most fascinating question: What does this thing even look like? Is it a manned/unmanned platform with stealth? Is it a larger mothership that can control all these unmanned systems? I just don’t know.”
Despite silence on the Air Force effort, it’s clear money is being spent to push the effort forward. In the fiscal 2019 budget, the service requested $504 million for “next-generation air dominance,” its portfolio of future fighter technologies and weapons. The Air Force expects to ramp up funding to $1.4 billion in FY20, hitting a high in FY22 with a projected $3.1 billion in spending.
Officials involved in the effort have described Penetrating Counter Air as a survivable aircraft that may have design elements similar to a bomber in order to give it a longer range. Parallel experimentation and prototyping efforts are seen as necessary to prove out breakthrough technologies in areas like propulsion or autonomy that could be ready by 2030.
Naval fighters needed?
For several years, the U.S. Navy has made noises about a new fighter competition known as F/A-XX. In 2012, the Navy issued a request for information that set a target date of 2030 for its initial operational capability. That date, however, seems increasingly unlikely.
Facing a mountain of recapitalization costs from the next-generation ballistic missile submarine to a next-generation frigate, the Navy’s timeline is unclear. It’s also unclear whether it wants a new fighter or whether the capability will be replaced with a family of systems.
“We are currently conducting an analysis of alternatives, both in anticipation of the retirement of the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G, as well as to maintain options for enhancing the lethality, survivability and effectiveness of the carrier strike group and meet predicted future threats in the 2030-plus timeframe,” Navy Lt. Lauren Chatmas said when asked about the state of the program.
An analysis of alternatives basically means the Navy is looking to see if there are already systems in the fleet that can take on the mission requirements of a future fighter, or if there are cheaper ways to do the same thing. The Navy announced in 2016 that the analysis of alternatives, which would include manned, unmanned and optionally manned airframes, had launched that January. That makes the effort more than two and a half years old.
The Navy is looking at some key capabilities it thinks a next-generation system or systems will need to in the 2030s and beyond, Chatmas continued.
“In terms of technologies, the Navy is considering trades to balance capability, affordability and survivability across a [family of systems] and not limiting the analysis to a single aircraft to meet future threats,” she noted. “Some important areas of consideration include derivative and developmental air vehicle designs, advanced engines, propulsion, weapons, mission systems, electronic warfare systems, and numerous other emerging technologies and concepts.”
Notably, the Pentagon’s recently released 30-year aviation plan shows the Air Force intends to complete its analysis of alternatives in the summer of 2018, with the Navy completing its equivalent in mid-2019.
That could be a sign that the systems will share some technologies. There are likely some shared technologies between the two, including things like directed energy or artifical intelligence, which brings back the core question of what a next-generation fighter looks like, and if it is as much a fighter plane as a hub for sensors and “loyal wingman” drones. And in 2015, then-acquisistion head Frank Kendall said the two systems would involve common parts.
But regardless of the final product, the design of the program won’t look anything like the multi-service, multinational F-35 fighter jet.
That includes nixing the potential that the American designs could somehow join forces with the two potential European fighter designs under consideration: one from a Franco-German team-up, and another from the United Kingdom.
“The F-35 experience has effectively killed jointness and international partnerships, for now at least,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.
That may be the right approach if the U.S. is truly concerned about security, noted Callan.
“The F-35 is a compromised design in a lot of ways,” Callan said. “You have to assume the Chinese know a lot about that plane from what they’ve been able to siphon off from theft or cyber means. There may be less incentive for U.S. to partner on a program like this if the goal is to have something that is really technological[ly] advanced and unique. The bigger the partnership, the more potential leakage points.”
However, keeping a program entirely domestic could present long-term economic challenges, he noted.
“That may be good, that may be bad. It could be like the F-22 — end up with 100-plus phenomenally expensive planes but no export market. So, pick your poison.”