The US has responded to the rapidly developing global race to sixth-generation fighter aircraft and reignited American industry’s pursuit of delivering a next-generation air dominance platform within the next decade.
As the fifth-generation revolution continues to transform Australian and allied air forces, regional air forces have been modernising and expanding their own fighter fleets to bolster the combat capability of their fighter forces, with the domestic development of comparable fifth-generation platforms key to establishing and maintaining regional air and multi-domain dominance.
Fighter aircraft, like every facet of military technology, are rapidly evolving. The current global and regional transition from fourth-generation to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in Australia’s region.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
However, the increasing production and operation of similar weapons systems by potential adversaries, following the development of the Russian Su-57 and export variants in the mid-2000s, combined with the advent of China’s J-20 and FC-31, is serving to narrow the fifth-generation capability gap between the US and its global allies, including Australia.
In response, the US has kicked off the development of its own sixth-generation suite of systems for both the US Air Force and US Navy as part of a modernisation and recapitalisation program for the ageing F-22 and F-18E/F and G series Super Hornet and Growlers.
Both the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) programs aim to deliver a “future system [that] will have to counter adversaries equipped with next-generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems (IADS), passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time frame”.
The US has launched the first restructure of its planned acquisition of the sixth-generation aircraft, with the US Air Force officially announcing the restructuring of its acquisition strategy for the NGAD program, which would require industry to design, develop and produce a new fighter in five years or less.
The challenge is set
Drawing on examples of the 1950s and the highly successful “century series” of aircraft designed, developed and built throughout the 1950s to avoid the costly overruns of programs like the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the KC-46 Pegasus programs, this shift in design, development and production has also seen a shift in the planned capabilities of the proposed platforms.
Shifting from the concepts established in the US Air Force's 'Air Superiority 2030' plan, it is proposed that the future fighter would rapidly prototype technologies with a focus on maturing them for inclusion in an advanced aircraft to be fielded in the early 2030s.
This shift is something highlighted by Will Roper, the US Air Force’s acquisition executive, in an interview with US publication Defense News, where he stated: “Based on what industry thinks they can do and what my team will tell me, we will need to set a cadence of how fast we think we build a new airplane from scratch. Right now, my estimate is five years. I may be wrong, I’m hoping we can get faster than that – I think that will be insufficient in the long term [to meet future threats] – but five years is so much better than where we are now with normal acquisition.”
This focus aims to leverage the existing capacity of US industry and the cutting-edge technology developments to develop a family of networked fighter aircraft – each with varying degrees of commonality, yet designed with optimisation in various and complimentary roles, ranging from an unmanned missile and bomb truck, through to a sophisticated sensor node or an airborne laser platform.
Achieving this will require a focus on three key areas, namely: agile software development – a process by which programmers quickly develop, test and implement code, soliciting feedback from users throughout the process; open systems architecture – enabling a great degree of plug-and-play functionality; and finally, digital engineering – including 3D modelling across the entire program to support lower costs, manufacturing and sustainment programs.
International industry collaboration – load sharing in the research and development stage
In recent years, Australia has increasingly adopted a range of European weapons systems, from the Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicle as part of the $5.2 billion LAND 400 Phase 2 program, the Airbus-designed and modified KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport, the joint Army and Navy fleet of MRH-90 and Army fleet of ARH-Tigers, and the $50 billion Naval Group-designed Attack Class submarines.
Each of these programs, combined with the the increasing capacity of Australia’s industrial capability and value-adding capacity as developed throughout the F-35 program, places Australia in an ideal position to integrate and participate in the development of any number of sixth-generation fighter designs to ensure continued air combat capability and interoperability with key regional and global allies in increasingly contested environments, beyond 2030.
Further supporting these factors is the growing integration and collaboration of Australian academic institutions with European industry partners and academic counterparts, which further positions the nation as an attractive industrial partner and potential customer for a potential European designed sixth-generation air combat platform, providing economic benefits to both Australia and European customers through economies of scale.
Collaboration of this scale also supports the Australian government’s Defence Industrial Capability Plan released in 2018, which identifies the government’s long-term vision to “build and develop a robust, resilient and internationally competitive Australian defence industry base that is better able to help meet defence capability requirements” in recognition of the rapidly evolving geostrategic environment and Australia’s changing role in the region.
Finally, the nation’s growing Industry 4.0 capabilities, and in some cases world-leading additive manufacturing, positions Australia well to further support a large-scale collaborative research, development and manufacturing program supporting broader global allies and the international rules-based order.
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep, combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and more broadly the European Union, also raises questions about developing and introducing a highly capable, high-speed, low observable, air-superiority focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces.