“There are other ways to survive, and we will look at the best combination of ways to survive in the future,” a senior Air Force official told me last year. “I wouldn’t say it is going to be 100 percent stealth, and I wouldn’t say it’s going to be zero percent stealth.”
Open Architecture and Upgradeable:
The F/A-XX and F-X will likely be in service for decades. The jets need to be easily and rapidly upgradeable without the Defense Department and the American taxpayer being held hostage by the contractor. That’s perhaps the biggest lesson learnt from the Pentagon’s F-35 nightmare.
The F-22 uses an antiquated proprietary avionics architecture that is a nightmarishly difficult and costly to upgrade. The F-35 is better—but the Pentagon is forced to rely on Lockheed to modify the jet.
A completely open-architecture design would allow the Defense Department to easily upgrade the F/A-XX and F-X. Moreover, if the Pentagon owned the data-rights, it would allow the Defense Department to force contractors to compete for upgrade work. Competition should drive down upgrade costs while speeding up the process. The Air Force is heading down that path, according to service officials.
Both the F/A-XX and F-X need to be designed so that they can incorporate advanced technologies like directed-energy weapons such as lasers as they become available.
Designed for Air Superiority:
While the Air Force’s F-X is geared toward the air superiority role, the Navy’s F/A-XX is being geared toward a multirole platform. However, as industry officials have pointed out, it is much easier to adapt an air superiority platform into a strike platform than the other way around.
Both jets should be designed first and foremost for the air superiority role and then adapted for strike. That way the F-X can eventually not only replace the F-22 and F-15C, but it would also be able to replace the F-15E Strike Eagle. There is no projected replacement for that jet—so that could kill two birds with one stone.
The Navy too should consider developing the F/A-XX with a bias toward the fighter role. The service should make sure it can support future operations in a high-threat environment in the Western Pacific where it is certain to encounter Chinese fifth-generation fighters like the J-20.
This is just the 50,000ft overview of what the Pentagon might do for its next-generation fighter. Until the Navy and Air Force conclude their analysis, no one knows for sure what the specific capability gaps are—or what the optimal solution might be.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.