Saving Air Superiority

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July 31, 2017 | Originally published by Date Line: July 31 on

Forget about a family of systems. Next-generation air dominance will require an aircraft with a family of advanced technologies.

The Air Force is racing the clock to preserve its ability to control the air. As new adversary fighters and air defenses develop—and are already challenging USAF’s ability to go anywhere and strike any target—the service figures it has about 13 years to start introducing the new array of hardware and operational concepts needed to come out on top in future air combat.

Last year, the Air Force conducted a study, Air Superiority 2030, that defined the anticipated gaps in USAF’s capabilities in the decade after next and some of the quickest ways to fill them. In January, it launched an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to seek the best all-around solution, summed up as a new, superstealthy combat airplane (called Penetrating Counterair, or PCA), able to operate deep within an enemy’s toughest air defenses. To go with it, new classes of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons are needed to guarantee that USAF can overcome superior numbers and get through to its targets. 

In addition, the Air Force will be looking to create other enabler systems, such as a new class of stealth drones—highly capable but cheap enough to lose if necessary. These unmanned aircraft will perform reconnaissance, strike, and electronic warfare missions. A Penetrating Electronic Attack aircraft, to perform stand-in jamming, will also be required. Still undecided is whether it will be a variant of the PCA.

In parallel, USAF is conducting a Future Fighter Force Structure study to determine how many aircraft will be necessary to fill out the combat air forces in the 2030 to 2040 time frame. That study will define the specific structural and capability upgrades needed to keep some portion of the legacy fighter force relevant. Said to be nearly complete, it will evolve along with the Air Force’s 2019 budget decisions, which look out five years.

The 13-year timetable is extremely ambitious, considering that both the F-22 and the F-35 took more than 20 years to go from the drawing board to operational service. Even if there are no further delays, the PCA won’t become a program of record until late 2018.“We don’t have a lot of time,” Air Combat Command (ACC) chief Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle said in a January interview with Air Force Magazine. “We’re aiming for” 2030 to have the new air superiority laydown in place, he said, admitting that the target date is optimistic. 

The PCA requirement will be shaped by money, current capability, the threat, and the “demand signal on the force” over the intervening years, he said.