Key point: Even if the F-35 eventually proves successful, it nearly became a victim of its enormity, attracting harsh criticism because of its size and expense.
Could a rethink of U.S. acquisition policies bring back the heady days of the “Century Series,” a time in which the Air Force could pick and choose between a variety of different fighters specialized in certain tasks? Could such an approach free the Pentagon from the specter of another gigantic, F-35-sized procurement project? An increasing number of people seem to think so, but before we take steps down that road we should make note of the pitfalls.
As reported by Stephen Trimble in Aviation Week, Will Roper, the assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, has argued that the United States needs to stop and rethink its acquisition policies before embarking on the Next Generation Fighter project.
The idea is this: Instead of investing heavily in a single fighter (such as the F-22 or the F-35), the USAF (and presumably the USN and the USMC) would invest in a project of projects that would generate a variety of different aircraft with different specs and different capabilities. Even though the F-35 is now regarded as largely successful (at least within portions of the defense community) no one likes the idea of reliving the process that produced it. Moreover, given that the Next Generation fighter program will involve even more sophisticated technologies, the successor to the F-35 might be even harder to make fly.
Roper suggested that modular design elements that allow different systems to be configured into different aircraft, with new configurations emerging every few years. The result would look something like the abortive FB-22, a notional medium-bomber based on technologies developed for the F-22 Raptor. While development costs for a variety of different fighters would quickly prove prohibitive, a single project that produced various aircraft in different configurations might work. Roper likened this project to the Century Series; a set of five fighters designed in the early 1950s that constituted the bulk of U.S. fighter strength into the 1970s.
Nor is Roper alone in such thinking. Last year, the Center for New American Security produced a report that made a similar point. The Future Foundry project, part of the CNAS Technology and National Security program. One of the points the Future Foundry point made was that the United States should develop an “optionality” strategy with respect to acquisition, which would put multiple projects in the pipeline at a given time. In case of significant shifts in technology or in the strategic situation, “optionality” would offer the Pentagon alternative acquisition pathways. The Future Foundry report also cited the Century Series as a model, although while the Century Series example offers a ready analogy, and the Next Generation Fighter project a particularly sticky problem, the idea could be applied across a variety of acquisition categories.
On its face the idea of multiple competing and complementary projects for maintaining U.S. airpower dominance (or whatever other domain you prefer) sounds appealing. Such a policy would offer the Department of Defense considerably greater flexibility on both the procurement and acquisition sides, and would likely allow the Navy and Air Force (not to mention the Marines) to focus on their own needs rather than on a single airframe. It would presumably play well with the defense industrial base, although changes in the defense industrial base (primarily consolidation) have also made a “Century Series” strategy more difficult.
However, the integration of modular components into a usable airframe, especially one that would require stealth, seems extraordinarily difficult. The Navy has struggled with modularity on its recent ships, and ships are far more forgiving than aircraft. The different F-35 models, which presumably will be more similar than any of the fighters envisioned by this project, have far less commonality than was initially expected, with the result of correspondingly greater costs. And while something like an FB-22 sounds great, Japan’s effort to think through a hybrid F-35/F-22 has been stymied by high expected costs.
It is also fair to ask whether the approach that Roper outlines even requires a new airframe. The Air Force’s controversial decision to acquire new, updated F-15s suggests that the integration of new technologies into old platforms can pay dividends. And as Tyler Rogoway made clear in his discussion of the Indo-Pakistani dogfights over Kashmir, even a platform as venerable as the MiG-21 (nearly as old as the B-52) can become lethal with the integration of the right equipment.
The Century Series Analogy
The Century Series is a nice analogy, but that analogy has a breaking point. The not-terribly-dark secret of the Century Series is that none of the fighters produced were all that great. The nine aircraft of the Century Series (including the cancelled F-103, F-107, and F-108) were built by five different firms; at the moment, only three firms in the United States could plausibly put together a fighter bid. Most of the aircraft were designed for nuclear war; either intercepting Soviet bombers or delivering tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Obviously, none of these aircraft ever did either of these things. The F-102 Delta Dagger was a complete dud, quickly eclipsed by rapidly advancing technology. The F-104 is notorious for having one of the worst safety records of any aircraft produced since 1945. The F-105 did good service in Vietnam, but proved relatively easy prey for North Vietnamese MiGs.
Perhaps more importantly, real-world experience did not contribute overmuch to the evolution of designs in the Century Series. Between the first flight of the F-100 and the first flight of the F-106, Century Series aircraft saw zero instances of air combat; evolution was driven entirely by technological change, rather than experience. Indeed, the experience of air combat in the Vietnam War helped demonstrate the severe deficiencies of some of the types. It was not until the F-15 and the F-16 emerged from a design process in the late 1960s that the lessons of modern air combat could be successfully integrated into a new airframe.
It’s also worth noting that the F-4 Phantom II, which first flew five years after the F-100, eventually performed nearly all of the roles of the Century Series fighters, usually much more effectively (the F-106 would remain in service as a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor until the 1980s). The F-4 flew in all three aviation services in the United States, and unlike most of the Century Series fighters was a major export success. Of course, the F-4 is not an exact parallel for the F-35, but the fact that it eventually came to dominate the American fighter fleet suggests that variety may not be as appealing in practice as it sounds in theory.
The idea of avoiding a project the magnitude of the F-35 makes a ton of sense. Even if the F-35 eventually proves successful, it nearly became a victim of its enormity, attracting harsh criticism because of its size and expense. Similarly, the idea of having a variety of different aircraft rather than putting all of the eggs into one fighter-shaped basket has an intuitive appeal. But before we pine for the days of Super Sabres, Delta Daggers and Starfighters, we should take a clear-eyed look at the problems and shortfalls generated during that period.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article first appeared earlier this year.