Saving Air Superiority

Feb. 27, 2017

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.

The threat is twofold, Carlisle explained.

First, potential adversaries are deploying modern fighters that pose a real challenge to USAF fighters. China has been steadily developing the J-20 and J-31—the latter looking like a two-engine F-35 clone—and Russia is nearing operational capability with the T-50.

Though some have dismissed these fighters as merely stealthy-looking jets that may someday come close to the performance of fifth generation platforms like the F-22 and F-35, “I think they’re here now,” Carlisle said. “I don’t think it’s a futuristic discussion.” He said the Chinese jets benefit from technical data stolen by China through cyber espionage, and that country and Russia are “moving faster than we thought” in progressing with modern aircraft.

Fighter technology really isn’t the problem, he continued. It’s really about numbers.

Though “I’d take the F-22 over J-20 any day, … the question isn’t ‘one vs. one,’?” Carlisle observed. In the South China Sea, he said, the threat might be “10 squadrons of J-20s, plus Su-35s—which they just picked up from Russia—and Su-30s and J-10s and J-11s,” as well as J-15s flying from the Liaoning, the Russian-built aircraft carrier China bought and reworked for its own use.

Meanwhile, the US would initially be limited to the relative handful of aircraft forward deployed to the Western Pacific.

“It’s an ‘away game’ for us; it’s a ‘home game’ for them,” Carlisle said, “and an away game has some serious limitations in terms of how we operate and where we operate from.”

China, or really any adversary, can put up its whole air force at the scene of battle and turn aircraft more quickly than the US, which operates with just a portion of its fleet at the end of a very long supply chain.

Second, and more important, is the threat from ground-based air defenses. China and Russia have invested heavily in far-reaching surface-to-air missiles and detection and tracking radars that may be able to target fifth generation aircraft in the not-too-distant future. Those air defense systems are being made available to other countries today, and it’s far less costly to buy and operate an advanced surface-to-air missile system than it is to maintain an advanced fleet of aircraft with seasoned pilots.

The PCA, then, will have to have “broadband, broad-spectrum stealth” as a primary design consideration, Carlisle said. The current state of stealth “is optimized for the X-band. So, we need to get broadband stealth” that can get past a variety of radar frequencies. Once that is obtained, “range, payload, and endurance” are the three major attributes needed, along with “broad-spectrum avionics,” advanced electronic warfare, and “counter-countermeasures.”

Such an aircraft doesn’t sound like a traditional fighter such as the F-22 or F-35, and Carlisle said that will all be part of the trade-off studies.

“It may be bigger than we think,” he said. “Maneuverability is one of those discussions—as in, if it’s penetrating, what level of maneuverability does it need? We don’t know the answer to that yet.”

Carlisle has previously said the need for a deep magazine of weapons, long range, and extreme stealth suggests the PCA aircraft might turn out to be more like the B-21 bomber than the F-22, but the AOA has not yet had time to explore such an idea.

What does seem clear is that the PCA will be a single solution and not a family of new fighters or a “joint” aircraft program like the F-35. So said Col. Thomas Coglitore, ACC’s chief of the Air Superiority Core Function Team and Next Generation Air Dominance.

The AOA is focused on “the high end of the operational environment,” he said in a January interview, and a two-airplane solution is “exceptionally unlikely.” He could not remember an AOA recommending two unique solutions.

The F-22 and F-35 will certainly be part of the mix. The Air Force intends to have the F-22 well into the 2040s; the F-35 considerably longer. Asked in a previous interview what he would most want in the way of a near-term improvement in the fighter force, Carlisle’s simple answer was “more shots.”

The F-22 is limited to six radar guided AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and two AIM-9 Sidewinders internally—and thus stealthily—while the F-35 is limited to a mix of four air-to-air missiles internally. Both can carry more weapons externally, but at the price of their stealth.

Separately from the PCA, the Air Force is considering so-called arsenal planes that would carry extra munitions that the fifth generation F-22s and F-35s could designate targets for.

Coglitore said the Navy has a need for a new counterair platform, but its requirement—defense of the carrier battle group—is very different from the Air Force’s mission of providing theaterwide air superiority. The services are sitting in on each other’s programs—they have a joint working group—sharing knowledge but not building a joint program, he said. They will look for ways to have some commonality of engines, software, and weapons, as well as interoperability, but the two services’ resulting aircraft are unlikely to be similar.

“Our gaps are different [from] the Navy’s gaps” in the 2030-40 time frame, Coglitore said.

Carlisle said given its responsibilities for “theater-level airpower,” USAF sees itself performing the “stand-in” electronic attack/electronic warfare mission in the future, while the Navy is migrating toward the “stand-off” EA/EW function—a reversal of the roles the services have played in the last two decades.

“There will be a synergy … there,” Carlisle said, as the services “marry those two together to make the greatest electronic attack capability we can.”

How did the Air Force get so far behind in developing its air superiority capability, a fundamental mission

Senior service officials said the Air Force found it politically tough to start talking about a follow-on for the F-22 at the time it really should have gotten the ball rolling. That was in 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates terminated the F-22 buy at less than half USAF’s planned and required number.

There was a raft of other big-ticket projects either in the works or getting underway, like the F-35, KC-46, B-21 bomber, and T-X trainer, so the decision was made to wait until the air superiority threat and requirement came into sharper focus. There was a sense, too, that the project would have to wait until Gates, highly skeptical of the high-end air-to-air mission, departed the job.

Moreover, Carlisle said, in that budget year, the Air Force undertook what was called the Combat Air Forces Redux.

CAF Redux cut more than 250 fighters from the fleet. This was done on the assumption that, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq supposedly winding down, the Air Force could “take a risk in the near term,” reduce the fleet, and use the savings to quickly buy F-35 fifth generation fighters to rebuild capacity.

It didn’t work out that way. The F-35 was late, and the combination of the budget sequester and unexpected challenges around the globe conspired to drain modernization accounts. The F-35 inventory is small and production rates are lagging.

The plan in 2010 called for USAF to be buying 110 F-35s a year by 2015. Instead, it is only now up to 48 a year. “So we took that risk, we never got to fifth gen, and by the way, the world changed and is significantly more challenging … than what we thought it was going to be in 2010,” Carlisle asserted.

For now, the “buy rate in the near term is the most important thing to the Air Force. Get the numbers up,” he said. That imperative is driven by the Air Force simply lacking the capacity to be in all the places it might need to be in a crisis. USAF needs airframes, and if the new administration follows through with its plan to add defense funds to Fiscal 2018, Carlisle said a bigger F-35 buy is at the top of the list.

He doesn’t see a “wall” in the future where further buys of F-35s would be pointless, given the threat. The Air Force is well along in defining the Block 4 upgrades it wants to see in future production and refits of earlier blocks.

Not Sixth Gen

The Air Force has eschewed talk of the PCA as a “sixth generation” fighter.

“Anyone who uses … ‘generation’ will be shot,” Coglitore joked. “We don’t talk about it in terms of generations anymore.” The reason, explained at the rollout of Air Superiority 2030, is that to be a true generational leap over the F-22, a fighter would have to incorporate such dramatic advances—hypersonic speed, perhaps, and directed-energy weapons—that it would take too long and cost too much to be built in the time and numbers needed. The Penetrating Combat Aircraft is to rely on technology already near at hand.

Carlisle has talked of creating new fifth generation missiles to go with fifth generation fighters.

“Sooner is better,” he said of a replacement for the AMRAAM. “I needed it a couple of years ago.” The Chinese counterpart missile, the PL-15, is expected to have excellent range and kinematics comparable to those of AMRAAM.

“We’re having good luck with modernization of the AMRAAM,” Carlisle said, but “it’s got a range issue … that doesn’t get us the advantage that we really need.” Though the Air Force Research Lab and others are pushing hard on hypersonics and “we spend a lot of time talking about it,” ACC isn’t betting on such a weapon, but “I think we’re getting close.”

Coglitore said there are a number of concepts being explored for a new air-to-air missile. It’s thought the platform and its main weapon will each be designed with the other in mind. A similar approach was taken with the Navy’s Phoenix missile and F-14 Tomcat and its radar in the 1970s.

He said USAF may economize by using existing seeker heads on a new missile body, likely to be smaller so that more missiles can be carried by all the combat aircraft USAF fields. A smaller missile in any case could increase the number of shots available, and the PCA may have a larger weapons bay than the F-22. The larger the airplane, though, the more it will probably cost.

The Air Force feels it has a solid grasp of the missile and sensor technology that will be available in 2030, Coglitore said. The new weapon is called the Small Advanced Capability Missile, or SACM, but Coglitore said he thinks the “A” in the acronym should be changed to “affordable,” because the Air Force will have to buy a lot of them.

Raytheon has a contract to pursue the concept, but other companies are also studying it, he said. Lockheed Martin has displayed a concept half the size of AMRAAM, called the Cuda, which it says would have longer range and similar sensor performance.

Asked if the AMRAAM and Sidewinder are in their sunset years, Coglitore noted they are numerous and will certainly be used, whether they can “cover … 25 or 75 percent of … what we need in the future, we’ll let it cover that” and use the new missiles to fill in the gaps.

“A mixed loadout might end up being the most optimum, but who knows?” he said. “We need to let the analysis play itself out.”

It’s not going to be enough for the PCA to simply get close to enemy targets. The Air Force wants to develop a new direct attack munition—a successor to the JDAM—because the air defenses of the 2030s will “have the ability to take that weapon out before it impacts the target,” Carlisle reported.

This new munition, known as the Survivable Strike Weapon, would be maneuvering, have reduced signature, “broadband acquisition and tracking” of mobile targets, and “longer standoff range,” he said. Here again, hypersonics will be “part of the dialogue,” but a vexing technical challenge is the sensors, because hypersonic speed generates tremendous heat.

Lasers and directed energy weapons also hold great promise, but the Air Force is not betting they will be available as a major kinetic capability in 2030 time frame. Carlisle said, however, that missiles able to knock out the electronics of a particular building have already been successfully tested and will be part of the future portfolio of weapons.

“We’re in tight with the directed energy folks,” Coglitore said, but “if they disappoint us, we will have alternatives to directed energy.”

Carlisle said the PCA will probably be manned. While “I do believe that the mix” of manned and unmanned aircraft “may change pretty significantly over time,” he doesn’t foresee a near-term future where “we’re going to take ejection seats out of every manned platform.”

More likely is that manned aircraft will supervise or control unmanned platforms as they collaboratively accomplish a mission.

Asked if the PCA will be able to function if space connectivity is denied, Coglitore said the aircraft is one way to guarantee space will not be denied.

“It’s almost like SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] for space,” he said. A system that can survive getting in close to an enemy’s most valued targets is a system that can blow up anti-satellite rockets on the pad, or uplink or downlink stations, or satellite jammers.

“Potential adversaries today or in the future could be engaging our space assets kinetically or nonkinetically,” he pointed out. “If we have air superiority, we can deny that pretty easily.”

To help bridge to the PCA, the F-15 Eagle fleets—both air superiority F-15Cs and ground attack F-15Es—are getting a package of capability upgrades, including active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, an infrared search and track system to help detect increasingly radar-stealthy aircraft, new processors, and the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System, or EPAWSS, which replaces its obsolete electronic warfare suite.

Starting in 2020, the Eagles will get a service life extension program concentrating on replacing structure that was expected to last for the life of the airframe, but is necessary since the aircraft have flown past those predicted hours. Among the parts needing replacement are longerons holding the front and back of the airframe together.

Later F-16s—Blocks 40/42 and 50/52—are already receiving a number of processing, computer and display improvements, new radios, software, the automatic ground collision avoidance system, and an AESA radar. The Air Force doesn’t plan to retire any more F-16s until 2022 at the earliest. A service life extension program is planned for up to 300 F-16s that will extend their service from 8,000 to 13,856 equivalent flight hours. This could carry them into the 2040s.

The F-22 fleet of about 180 aircraft has a well-laid out upgrade plan that is largely classified; it’s focused on steadily improving the F-22’s sensors, stealth, stealth maintainability, and ability to communicate both with F-35s and fourth gen fighters.

USAF is on the hook to provide Congress with a report on how much it would cost to upgrade to full combat capability the 60 or so F-22s used for training. Senior service officials say they like the idea, but as a practical matter, it would be difficult to implement and costly to maintain.

Another participant in the PCA analysis of alternatives is Air Mobility Command. Gen. Carlton D. Everhart III, AMC commander, said last fall that a future aerial tanker may not look like the traditional converted airliners, but may instead be a stealthy platform that can go into denied airspace to refuel fifth gen aircraft and the PCA.

“I think we’ll go first and figure out what we need … as it pertains to air superiority,” Coglitore said, and the result “could drive [AMC’s] requirement for any future tanker.” It may not, if the PCA ends up having sufficient range to not need tanker support. It also may not be technically feasible.

“Normally, when you drop a boom down, it’s not very stealthy,” he said.

“We obviously need air superiority” to fulfill the Air Force’s primary mission, Coglitore asserted. “I think we’ve got the permissive and contested” environments “nailed down.” But USAF needs new platforms to be able to go where current aircraft “may not be able to go in the future.”

The Air Force is highlighting the mission because “no one’s really lived in a time” when the US didn’t have air superiority in a conflict, and they may not realize that it doesn’t simply happen, automatically, and that it is being challenged today.

“We know air superiority is a prerequisite” for all other military operations and is “the great enabler,” Coglitore said. It’s not a birthright, he said. It’s “something that you have to earn.”