It appears as if the US Air Force is responding to global sixth-generation fighter competition with breakneck speed, but not in the direction many were expecting, with renewed focus on developing and integrating attritable unmanned systems to support traditional manned platforms like fighters and long-range strike capabilities.
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 multidomain 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.
The initial stages of this next-generation program, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) programs aimed to deliver a: “future system [that] will have to counter adversaries equipped with next-generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time frame”.
However, the costs for developing such a next-generation platform, combined with the growing capability of integrated air defence networks, have presented a conundrum even for the US Air Force as affordability and delivery time frames become increasingly important components to ensure that the US Air Force is able to maintain air superiority and air dominance.
Send in the drones
Enter the realm of expendable yet highly capable “loyal wingman” style unmanned aerial systems incorporating a range of increasingly complex, costly and next-generation capabilities ranging from directed energy weapons, advanced sensor suites, improved low observability characteristics and enhanced range like the Boeing Defence Australia’s Airpower Teaming System and systems like the US-based Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie.
US Air Force General James Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command, explained the shift in thinking, telling reporters at the Association of the Air Force Air, Space and Cyber Conference: “We have completed an analysis of alternatives, and our acquisition team is working on the requirements. We are pretty deep into experimenting with hardware and software technologies that will help us control and exploit air power into the future.”
Unmanned systems serve as a key focus of this reorientation for the NGAD/PCA development program and is something that the US Air Force seems to have recognised, as reported by Tyler Rogoway in an article for The Drive, which identified two key points:
“A tailless, stealthy, comparatively long-range tactical jet that many had labeled a sixth-generation fighter had been the focus of the Air Force’s plans… The fiscal realities of producing such an aircraft that would require a long development period would have made it very unlikely to materialize…
“…as Next Generation Air Dominance has evolved, it has steadily shifted more and more towards unmanned and pilot-optional concepts linked together by powerful networks so that they can operate at least semi-autonomously, if not autonomously, as necessary.”
Australia may be leading the pack, but there is a while to go yet
Designed for global defence customers by Boeing Australia, it is the company’s largest investment in a new unmanned aircraft program outside the US. The Boeing Airpower Teaming System aircraft will complement and extend airborne missions conducted by manned platforms like the F-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms through the concept of smart teaming.
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System is expected to:
- Provide fighter-like performance, measuring 38-ft long (11.7 metres) and able to fly more than 2,000 nautical miles
- Integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and electronic warfare
- Use artificial intelligence to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft
The precedent already established by the collaboration between Defence Science and Technology and Boeing on the development of the “loyal wingman” concept provides avenues for Australia to partner with defence industry primes and global allies to support the US Air Force’s pursuit of a next-generation UAS capability.
Autonomous and unmanned systems are changing the way the ADF and militaries around the world conduct operations. Supporting combat, humanitarian and intelligence roles, the scope for evolution in these leading-edge capabilities is playing a key role in the development of existing and follow-on systems for Australia and its allies.
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.