The Buzz

Why America Shouldn’t Build Sixth-Generation Manned Fighters

The sole-superpower era (aka “unipolar moment”) may well be ending.  One significant indicator is a major Air Force study which predicts “...projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning...” against an array of emerging threats.

During the Cold War and its aftermath, the United States could rely on technical superiority incorporated in highly-capable, multi-mission systems as a core competency.  Although they were expensive and had long development times, their capabilities could not be quickly or easily countered.   But this approach looks increasingly dubious.  First- those expensive and capable platforms with long development times are getting increasingly expensive and taking much longer to develop. 

Second, spending lots of money over extended periods of time will likely not be feasible.  The Congressional Budget Office and others point out that the bulk of the expected federal budget for the foreseeable future is committed to entitlement programs, entailing large structural deficits.  The current manifestation of that fiscal squeeze is “sequestration,” and will likely be replaced with sequestration’s functional equivalent -- meaning a significant increase in defense budgets is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Third, first-rate adversaries, actual and potential, have become significantly more sophisticated, capable and agile.  And the threats they pose are increasingly varied and complex.  Within this context, a number of challenges to US air superiority are in place or developing.  These include access-denial military complexes -- with long-range, stealthy tactical fighters; ballistic and cruise-missile weapons capable of targeting US bases (land and sea); and highly capable surface-to-air missile systems.  These modern integrated air defenses pose a particularly acute threat to US air superiority and therefore to force projection capabilities. 

Given these circumstances, a well-considered and timely offsetting response is strongly indicated.  Accordingly, we (1) discuss the salience of 2030 in DoD air combat planning, (2) consider the F-35 as a combat asset going forward; (3) offer some thoughts about the right number of 6th-generation manned fighter types, and (4) essay a list of air combat gaps for a conflict in the 2030s, with ratings of  their relative importance.

One conclusion we reach is that there is a strong case for no new manned fighters in the near future.

Planning For 2030 and beyond

An interesting feature of the current discussion is the apparent salience of 2030 for air combat planning purposes.  The year is frequently discussed as an operational date for a next-generation fighter, or set of systems. ).  Highly-placed Air Force officials (including the Commander, Air Combat Command) have held that 2030 IOC to be an operational requirement.  Similarly Navy leadership has noted a need to replace its Super Hornet fleet starting in 2030.

Also 2030 has been the reference point for a number of studies of future air combat, including some by the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The F-35 as air combat asset

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF, F-35) began as an initiative to provide a timely and affordable replacement for a number of US fighter aircraft.  The design then evolved to making the new fighter something touted as a revolution in air combat.  Requirements growth entailed significant schedule delays and cost overruns.  In retrospect, the acquisition strategy could be described as devolving to fielding that aircraft no matter how long it took or how much it cost.

F-35 cost and schedule problems can be attributed to the complexity of a software-defined aircraft.  This has also meant software-limited, with software development generally defining the critical path of the program schedule.

Two of three F-35 models are now declared operational, albeit with limited mission capability – software development being the likely pacing item on the road to operational maturity. 

That said, the F-35 is expected to be an effective air combat asset at maturity – with operational service possible until 2070.  There are excellent reasons to question that longevity hypothesis.

First, the stealthy F-35 is no final solution.  All concerned powers, (including the US) are developing stealth countermeasures.  The list includes the following:

  • Advanced lower-frequency radars, which can cause a resonant return from a stealthy airframe.  New developments include phased-array radars operating in the VHF frequency band;
  • New-generation, higher-frequency, airborne radars, which provide improved detection of stealthy targets and better tracking through improved interpretation algorithms;
  • Multi-static radar networks featuring passive receivers and rapid analysis of sensor information;
  • Detection and tracking using non-radar emissions, such as heat and sound;
  • Far-forward airborne interceptors, including perhaps the Chinese J-20, which could cause major problems for US refueling orbits.

Many of these programs are still in development, and it’s safe to say not all will succeed.  Nonetheless, these stealth countermeasures constitute a rich and promising menu.  As time goes on, we can expect at least some of them to be operational and effective. 

Stealth counter-countermeasures are, of course, possible, but it may be difficult to match the US’ low-velocity acquisition bureaucracy against agile and sophisticated opponents.  Or as an Air Force flag officer put it: “… emerging threats’ timelines are decreasing.  (Our) acquisition times are increasing.”