As peer competitors continue to field fifth-gen air dominance fighter fleets, the US Air Force has sought to maintain its qualitative edge despite budgetary constraints. This push to develop a ‘digital century’ series of next-generation fighters is one step closer to reality with a make or break deadline rapidly approaching.
With the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31, the US has kicked off a suite of development programs to replace the ageing F-15 Eagle and fifth-generation F-22 Raptor air frames beginning in the 2030s.
While the US has plans to maintain fifth-generation combat aircraft like the F-22 and the F-35 and has recently announced the acquisition of an advanced F-15X variant, which will serve as the backbone of the US continental air national guard wings, the rapid evolution of potential adversaries' fifth-generation air combat capabilities has forced a major step-change in the way the US responds to these evolving capabilities.
The 2016 'Air Superiority 2030' study conducted by the US Air Force sought to identify the capabilities of the 'Next Generation Tactical Aircraft' air superiority/dominance fighter jet expected to enter service in the 2030s.
As part of this identification process, the US Air Force identified a suite of capabilities needed to survive in the increasingly complex future air combat environment.
"The future system 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," the US Air Force solicitation stated.
"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 Navy has also recognised a number of major capability gaps in both the F-35C and the F/A-18E/F and G series Super Hornet and Growler strike aircraft, namely the lack of low observable coatings, limiting survivability in complex integrated air defence environments and comparatively short, unrefuelled combat radius' exposing the US Navy's aircraft carriers to advanced Russian and Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.
As a result of the different operating environments and requirements, the Pentagon, Air Force and Navy would be expected to avoid the joint development program model, which, while delivering the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, presented a series of challenges resulting in compromised capabilities.
This push to rapidly develop the successor to the highly capable, yet limited number of F-22 Raptors, also known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform has reached a critical juncture, as the USAF is expected to deliver its final business case by the end of the year.
A 'digital century' series
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 complementary 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.
Roper recently expanded on the aforementioned details, telling Defense News, "I hope to have the acquisition plan for NGAD rolling into the Digital Century Series this summer. I don’t want to go more specific than that and timeline and drumbeat for the team, because I have given them an unprecedented task."
Expanding on this, Roper added, "How long we keep the aircraft is one of the variables that they are weighing [as part of the business case]. How many years make sense? It’s clearly not two, three, four, five, but we don’t want it to be 30 either. So they’re looking at that.
"They’re looking at the amount of modernisation that would be expected — what we would expect that to cost and if it gets easier with digital tools. And then summing it all up to see whether the cost of having a lethal airplane per year is less than for the Digital Century Series model than for the traditional," he said.
Adding to this, Roper explains the focus of the NGAD program, saying, "If it is, that is going to really help us, I hope, because we’ll show that data and argue that it is not just better from a ‘competing with China and lethality’ standpoint. It’s just better from a business standpoint.
"If it breaks even or is less [than traditional methods], I will be exceptionally happy. If it’s more expensive — and I hope not exceptionally more — then we’re going to have to argue on behalf of the program."
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 – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of 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?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid 2030s.