Plans for a new sixth-generation U.S. Air Force (USAF) "Penetrating Counter Air" fighter aircraft concept are advancing, and Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have all unveiled sixth-generation fighter concepts or artist’s impressions. It will, however, be many years before any resulting aircraft makes a Paris air show debut.
Current efforts stem from a 2016 USAF "Air Superiority 2030" study, which concluded that the Air Force would need to acquire a "Next Generation Tactical Aircraft" for air superiority and air dominance. The new aircraft would replace the Boeing F-15 Eagle and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, complementing the USAF's F-35As.
The Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) aircraft represents one element (the air domain platform component) in the USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) analysis of alternatives. This is expected to encompass a future family of air superiority capabilities that will together allow the USAF to control the air and space domains. They will allow the USAF to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment, holding targets at risk even in highly contested airspace.
This family of systems and capabilities will include communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and command and control systems, and a host of existing and future platforms and weapons, and include various means of delivering non-kinetic effects such as electronic attack and cyber-warfare.
But the family is still expected to include a new, high-end PCA platform: a manned fighter providing air dominance, air supremacy, air interdiction, and precision strike.
Such a fighter would be expected to incorporate a high degree of stealth and sensor fusion and to be armed with very long-range missiles and perhaps Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs). Artificial intelligence might allow the aircraft to be a single-seater and it could even incorporate provision for optional manning. It could also operate in conjunction with swarming drones.
All of this could result in a long and complex development program and high costs at a time when U.S. defense budgets will be stretched by a range of competing priorities. It could also result in relatively rapid obsolescence, because adversary capabilities and technology will inevitably move on in the time that it takes to develop and field a fighter produced via a traditional large-scale program, necessitating an early upgrade or an urgent replacement.
Bridge to the Future
But an alternative approach has been outlined, not least by General Mike Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command, who recently looked back at the “Century Series” of fighters of the late 1950s as a model of rapid turnover projects. which were rapidly developed and fielded, but which were expected to serve for a short time (seven to 10 years) before being withdrawn from frontline service.
A modern counterpart to this strategy would allow an air advantage to be maintained, a process that cannot be static. The U.S. would keep multiple development programs active, shifting investment into the most promising and fielding upgrades to in-production fighters rapidly and frequently, and producing new platforms when they offered a significant advantage.
These new aircraft could be less expensive to procure and sustain than today’s fighters because they would not be expected last 30 years or 20,000 flying hours and would be produced in relatively small numbers, with overlapping programs producing several new types in each "generation."
Confusingly, the NGAD acronym used by the USAF is also being used to describe a separate U.S. Navy analysis of alternatives. This covers the search for a replacement for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler, with service entry in the 2030s. The basic requirement is to better protect the Navy’s aircraft carriers, which are becoming more vulnerable to advanced long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missile systems.
The two NGADs are not related or connected and there are no plans to merge the efforts or to pursue a joint fighter program, since the two services’ requirements are very different, although some senior officers have suggested that there could be some procurement of common systems and subsystems to be integrated with both new next-generation fighter aircraft. The Navy has fought suggestions that it should simply procure a navalized version of the USAF’s PCA. The Navy does not want to pay for capabilities that it will not use, and it may pursue some commonality with the F-35C, which may result in a "cheaper" F/A-XX (what the Navy has provisionally dubbed its new fighter).
While the USAF continues to place great emphasis on low observability (or stealth) to penetrate enemy airspace, the Navy’s deputy director of air warfare, Angie Knappenberger, has said that the Navy will not need its F/A-XX to penetrate enemy airspace and instead plans to use standoff missiles for deep-penetration missions or it will hand such missions over to the Air Force.
Instead, the Navy is expected to focus on increased range, because range is perceived to be a significant limitation for the current carrier air wing. It may also focus on speed. Stealth will play some part but is viewed as being just one element in a wider survivability equation. The Navy is also working on ultra-lightweight armor and counter-directed energy technologies.
The Navy may not acquire a new manned fighter at all, but could instead network shipboard systems and multiple manned and/or unmanned aircraft. It could decide to procure additional Super Hornets, Growlers, and F-35Cs, perhaps in upgraded form, rather than developing an exotic new platform with transformational capabilities.