It seems clear that the aviation industry could build a cheaper, if slightly less capable, stealth fighter. If that is indeed the case, General Brown may just be onto something.
What would a new stealth fighter mean for the Air Force?
Brown’s suggestion of a 5th generation “minus” fighter speaks to the common vernacular surrounding fighter jet generations. Aircraft like the F-15EX are sometimes called 4th-gen+ or ++ fighters because they offer some capability that’s more common among the 5th generation of fighters, so it stands to reason that a stealth fighter with a bit more 4th generation capability might be a 5th-gen– (or minus).
It seems likely that the new fighter would leverage a stealth design, but likely wouldn’t be quite as stealthy as the F-35 or F-22, both of which require near-constant maintenance of their radar-absorbent coating to stay as sneaky as possible. A new jet would likely be intended to go longer between coatings, while still offering a big increase in stealth over decidedly non-stealth jets like the F-16. As such, the new fighter would need to carry ordnance internally like the F-35 and F-22 while minimizing its radar cross-section, but would likely operate often with external pylons for additional munitions in uncontested airspace.
The new light weight fighter would fill multiple roles, from air-to-ground operations to air superiority ones–just like the F-16. In fact, despite the F-16’s reputation as a highly capable ground attack aircraft, it was invented specifically as a lightweight fighter tasked with dueling enemy jets–and a new lightweight fighter may be very much the same.
This new fighter would not replace the F-35, but would rather absorb many roles in less contested airspace that the F-35 may be able to handle, but are better suited for cheaper aircraft. That could mean minimizing the amount of hours, and in turn, upkeep, each F-35 logs per year. It would also increase the Air Force’s capability set, offering another strike option between older platforms like the F-15 and F-16 and high-dollar jets like the F-35 and F-22.
The F-35 itself, however, could find itself in a similar predicament to the F-22. America has just 186 Raptors, and as each one ages out of service, there won’t be new F-22s to replace them. If Lockheed Martin similarly stopped F-35 production, America may be left with the just 250 or so jets they’ve taken delivery on thus far. Of course, such a pivot would likely take months or even years to play out, so the total numbers would probably be higher.
Of course, that too seems unlikely thanks to the political insulation the F-35 program has garnered by spreading production out across most of America’s 50 states. Lawmakers voting for a reduction in F-35 orders would effectively be voting for job losses among their constituents, prompting some to call the F-35 program “too big to fail.” Whether we like it or not, all our eggs may be in the F-35’s basket.
The Air Force has reportedly already built and tested a concept for a “6th generation” fighter, so it seems possible that a less-advanced prototype could manifest rather quickly. For now though, only time will tell.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.
This article first appeared on Sandboxx News.