Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from a research report of the same title published in 2016. It excludes the scenarios and analysis used to provide the below conclusions. For a copy of the research report in its entirety, please contact the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading Time: 9 minutes
By Jalen A. Whitener
The next generation of fighter aircraft should possess a supersonic capability, maneuverability superior to that of US potential adversary aircraft, and incorporate new directed energy (DE) weapons technology. The ongoing cat and mouse game of technological development will keep the possibility of a visual engagement or threat reactions that rely on these characteristics relevant and will thus drive the need for a responsive, survivable strike and air defense platform. Additionally, technology advances in electronic attack and electronic protection continue to reduce the probability of a radar guided missile’s successful engagement of its target, thus creating the need for a new class of weapons. Current technological developments suggest that aircraft will soon be traceable (and therefore targetable) regardless of their signature management technique. This condition will likely require US planners to overcome the surface-to-air threat through means other than signature management techniques on fighter/strike aircraft before sending them forward to interdict enemy movements and protect US ground and maritime forces. When the advanced integrated air defense system (IADS) is rendered ineffective, then US aircraft will depend on speed and agility to minimize exposure to other threats, including adversary aircraft or alternative tracking techniques. From a defensive stand-point, fighters will likely continue to serve as the first line of defense against air threats to US bases and maritime assets in the global commons. It follows that giving up speed and maneuverability in favor of signature management, payload, and range maximizing traits would hinder the defensive capabilities of these aircraft (i.e. its ability to intercept incoming threats at the maximum distance from the defended area), thus further limiting the Air Force’s ability to achieve success through the air domain. Some argue that technology will evolve to negate the utility of speed because friction from the high airflow increases an aircraft’s heat signature (making it vulnerable to passive infrared (IR) sensors) and the need for greater range and payload will trump the smaller fighter-size aircraft’s limitations in these areas. The increasing capability of infrared search and track (IRST) technology, however, will allow it to detect aircraft at even subsonic speeds, negating part of the advantage of a subsonic airframe. Since World War II, when radar began to be used in a military capacity, US adversaries have developed defensive counters for nearly every offensive technology the US has developed at a fraction of the cost. The most current example is the US fifth generation fighter and its stealth technology, which is designed to penetrate Russian and Chinese IADS. This stealth advantage is quickly being challenged by multiple technologies, including radars using Very High-Frequency (VHF) wavelengths and passive infrared sensors in multiple frequency ranges. This is not to say that stealth technology or signature management techniques will not be relevant in future aircraft. To the contrary, this project assumes that stealth, heat dissipation, and other signature management techniques will inevitably be a significant part of sixth-generation aircraft design. The point of divergence from the theory of dependence on signature management technology lies in this project’s position that to rely solely on stealth and IR signature management to ensure survivability and lethality would not be prudent; particularly to the extent that one might give up the maneuverability and speed required to penetrate and escape modern defenses and weapons systems in the name of minimizing radio frequency (RF) and IR signatures and maximizing range and payload.
The need to retain speed and maneuverability goes far beyond counter-stealth technology proliferation. Some argue that increased payload comes at the cost of maneuverability due to weight and volume of space (and therefore size of the aircraft) required. Development of directed energy weapons will significantly increase the available payload to any aircraft equipped with them thus increasing and broadening the types of effects a given platform can provide. Applying this technology to fighter-sized aircraft solves the payload limitations a fighter has when carrying kinetic missiles, and allows it to remain survivable in contingency situations. Though slower, less maneuverable aircraft also enjoy the benefits of DE weapons, they are not survivable when confronted by adversary fighters at close range. US Navy leadership is already discussing the need for these technologies, and companies like Northrop and Boeing are answering with F/A-XX sixth-generation concepts that both provide an initial concept for application of these new weapons and address the associated heat dissipation concerns that these types of weapons create.
As the United States continues to pursue a multi-pronged approach to securing freedom of access and re-assuring its security partners around the globe, the Department of Defense must leverage multi-domain, joint capabilities. Combining the emerging capabilities of space and air assets using DE, coupled with emerging cyber capabilities to form the “family of capabilities” sought by the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan, has the potential to yield extremely efficient results in a manner likely unaccounted for by US adversaries. Packaging these potential capabilities in a slow, un-maneuverable aircraft that seeks to accomplish multiple missions using its advantages in range and payload capacity will likely fail to yield the desired effectiveness or cost efficiencies. Doing so ultimately risks the USAF’s ability to ensure success in deterring the enemy or guaranteeing victory in conflict. The alternative of retaining the ability to maneuver and rapidly penetrate, respond, strike, and escape will better enable victory for the US in any endeavor.
This project used a scenario planning framework to evaluate possible outcomes of the application of differing fighter characteristics and various classes of weapons on future “target and engage” platforms. This framework is well suited to illustrating the tradeoffs between the different characteristics in a combat environment. The project first identified key factors driving the development of the next fighter and then compared opposing flight characteristics and weapons classes, analyzing them through a scenario continuation to determine which ones provide the greatest utility to the USAF. Next, analysis of the scenarios using the key factors addressed important concerns for USAF and DoD leadership to consider during future fighter development. Once the analysis was complete, tradeoffs affecting overall utility of the platform were qualitatively evaluated using a weighted risk-reward matrix.
Four scenarios compare and contrast the traits and the tradeoffs on two types of aircraft. The left side of the horizontal axis primarily relies on stealth and other signature management techniques for survivability and possesses large weapons payload and extended range for lethality. The other side relies on speed and maneuverability, coupled with stealth technology for survivability, but possesses a smaller payload and shorter range. To generate the four separate scenarios, two types of weapons, represented on the vertical axis, are applied to the two platforms analyzed, the lower being current or near future conventional type missiles and air-to-ground weapons, and the upper being DE weapons. The four scenarios are then F-X1 (large, subsonic with conventional weapons), F-X2, (small, supersonic with conventional weapons), F-X3 (large, subsonic with DE weapons), and F-X4 (small, supersonic with DE weapons).
Following the model for scenario thinking described by Diana Scearce and Katherine Fulton, each of the driving factors were evaluated for risks and rewards using three “guiding principles:” the long view, outside-in thinking, and multiple perspectives. These three lenses help to thoroughly vet each scenario in order to glean as much relevant data as possible.
Comparisons were scored on a basis of risk and potential reward in applying the various characteristics for each scenario’s aircraft. Points are awarded, in order of precedence, for: 1) Lethality (+/-3 points), 2) Survivability (+/-2 points), and 3) Projection (+/-1 point). A “0” is awarded if the factor is considered neither a strength nor a weakness for a given platform. Lethality encompasses the fighter’s ability to destroy as many targets, both air and ground, as possible and in the most efficient way with regard to time in the threat area. Survivability encompasses the aircraft’s signature management capabilities in all portions of the frequency spectrum (e.g. visual, IR, VHF, UHF, etc.) and its ability to defeat or deny enemy attacks and to escape or avoid enemy weapons engagement zones. Projection refers to the aircraft’s ability to take its capabilities to the enemy, unhindered by distance. An aircraft with a greater range capability will score better in the comparison than an aircraft with lower range. Certainly these are not the only relevant factors; however, for the purpose of this research, they are the baseline assumptions and serve to define the overall scope of this project.
When comparing the four scenarios and the associated platforms, it is evident that the most lethal and survivable platform is F-X4, the fast, agile platform which carries DE type weapons. The comparison shows that DE weapons enhance both lethality and survivability over the strict use of kinetic weapons. Maneuverability is not given significant credit towards lethality itself because the majority of engagements will likely be decided beyond visual range. Showing that both types of airframes benefit from the advantages of DE weapons, F-X3 and F-X4 are assessed to be similarly lethal. Survivability, however, proved to be the decisive factor in this assessment. F-X1 was the least survivable due to its lack of either DE weapons, speed to escape, or maneuverability to turn and fight if required. F-X2 and F-X3 scored equally, but for different reasons: F-X2 lacked DE weapons and F-X3 lacked speed/maneuverability. F-X4 proved to be the most survivable, benefitting from both the defensive capabilities of DE weapons and the ability to escape or maneuver if required.
Aircraft with larger airframes, and thus higher fuel capacity, scored the best in projection. Efficient engines have the potential to allow fighter-sized aircraft to reach strategic ranges someday, but until bomber-type fuel capacity is no longer required, the larger airframe aircraft will bring far greater power projection capability to the USAF.
An added note from the scenarios is the illustration that if adversary counter-stealth acquisition and tracking technology continues to advance and achieves the ability to cue weapons against stealth aircraft, future operations could become dependent on third-party technology (like stand-off jamming, satellite-based jamming and force protection effects, offensive cyber effects, etc.) to remain survivable against advanced surface to air threats. The USAF’s guidance on developing a family of capabilities in the air, space, and cyber domains identifies this requirement, and sets out the road map for this idea’s requisite development areas. If this guidance truly leads to complimentary, integrated assets that produce combined effects, the USAF has the opportunity to build a lethal, survivable, cost-efficient fighting force that will enable US influence for years to come.
Jalen Whitener is a fighter pilot in the Air Force Reserve Command at the 69th Fighter Squadron.
Featured image courtesy of https://www.engadget.com/2015/09/18/usaf-combat-lasers-by-2020/
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.