So little is known about the now airborne 6th-Gen stealth fighter aircraft, yet it is a potential breakthrough platform that is exploding onto the scene years ahead of what was previously anticipated.
Now, it appears the progress and promise of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance 6th Gen program may already be substantially impacting the service’s force structure plans for the future.
The F-22 may now retire 20 or more years earlier than is now planned, should plans articulated in a “yet-to-be-unveiled” Air Force 30-year fighter force design, according to senior service leaders quoted in a fast-breaking report from Air Force Magazine
The F-22, Retiring?
Currently, the Air Force plans to fly the much-upgraded F-22 until 2050 or even 2060, an intent fueled and fortified by several promising and impactful weapons, sensing, and software upgrades intended to help preserve the Raptor’s superiority for decades into the future. The emerging 30-year force design, according to the Air Force Magazine report, calls for the F-22 to begin to sunset as early as 2030, a massive strategic shift from the status quo.
Well, the Air Force is likely to keep much of its future force planning specifics pretty close-hold for obvious reasons, yet it seems apparent that the promise and accelerated emergence of a new 6th-Gen aircraft, which has already taken to the sky may be responsible for the conceptual and planning shift. In effect, extended life for F-22 will form a “bridge” to 6th Gen.
“The Air Force plans a “transition” from the F-22 to the NGAD, and “we felt like, now is a good time for us to be able to talk about how we’re going to bridge” between the two systems,” Air Force Magazine writes, quoting Lt. Gen. Clinton S. Hinote, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements.
This thinking might also help explain why the Air Force continues to heavily emphasize plans to preserve, upgrade and continue the F-35 for decades into the future, meaning an F-22-like replacement would fly alongside of and complement the F-35. Instead of replacing or competing with the F-35, it appears NGAD will supplement, support, and contribute to an integrated air-dominance strategy. As a multi-role fighter, the F-35 may have a broader mission capacity than an ultra-high-speed, maneuverable air-to-air capable 6th Gen. The two 5th-Gen aircraft together achieve a certain synergy, as the multi-role F-35 can conduct air-attacks, dogfight and also perform an entirely new generation of computing and airborne drone-like ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) ability. In support of this, an F-22 can bring unparalleled speed and aerial agility for air-to-air superiority. An F-35 can, for instance, find enemy fighter jet targets to engage or hand off to F-22s in a position to destroy them in the air.
This possibility continues to gain traction given that newer innovations are enabling breakthrough levels of secure, two-way F-22-F-35 communications linking the two aircraft with LINK 16. Also, in a recent Lockheed Martin Skunk Works breakthrough, a U-2 Spy plane succeeded in real-time, networked aerial target sharing, operating as a gateway node connecting the Raptor’s Intra-Flight Datalink with the F-35s Multifunction Advanced Datalink. This is the kind of multi-node, meshed war data web the Air Force envisions for its future force, something that a 6th Gen aircraft is likely to bring to even newer levels of functionality.
It seemed possible quite some time ago that the emerging NGAD might be more of an F-22 replacement than a next-gen F-35 type aircraft, in part to help correct, mitigate or offset what many see as an F-22 deficit. There are more than 160 operational F-22s, yet many Commanders and Air Force senior leaders, as well as Pentagon decision-makers and members of Congress, have long believed the F-22 production program was stopped much too early, to the detriment of the Air Force. This is in part because the F-22 is regarded as perhaps the best air dominance air-to-air fighter in the world. Its supercruise ability to achieve and sustain massive speeds without needing an afterburner, coupled with its thrust-weight ratio and vectoring ability is regarded as unparalleled attributes. Making its combat debut against ISIS in 2014, the F-22 is also capable of close-air support.
Also, a software upgrade called 3.2b implemented in recent years massively expanding the range and targeting precision of several key F-22 weapons as part of a decided effort to prepare the Raptor for a new generation of air threats in a great power era. The Raytheon-built AIM-120D and AIM-9X weapons, fundamental to F-22 superiority, have now received substantial performance-enhancing upgrades. The problem with the F-22 has been clear--there simply are not enough of them. Several years ago there was considerable attention paid to the possibility of restarting the F-22 production line, an idea that was ultimately declined, due to what was described at the time as budget considerations. Could the decision not to restart F-22 production several years ago be in part due to plans for an even more superior, next-generation F-22-like 6th-Gen stealth fighter?
Is there something faster, stealthier, more maneuverable, and more lethal than the F-22? It seems that could be true.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University