Iced, Man

The U.S. Air Force May Have Just Built Its Last Fighter Jet

The operator of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated fleet of warplanes isn’t planning on developing a major new dogfighter. How come?

Senior Airman Erin Trower/Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has just released its latest official strategy for controlling the sky for the next 15 years. And for the first time in generations, the “air-superiority” plan doesn’t necessarily include a new fighter jet.

That’s right—the world’s leading air force, the operator of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated fleet of fighter planes, isn’t currently planning on developing a major new fighter. The Air Force may be getting the F-35—its current fighter. But it probably won’t get an F-36 any time soon.

And that’s a real shame for fans of thunderous air shows and Hollywood blockbusters. The Air Force has a plan to replace its traditional fighters, but it involves technology that’s not as impressive at a public event or on the silver screen.

Instead of deploying squadrons of supersonic, manned jets to directly battle enemy planes with missiles and guns—the traditional approach to air superiority—in 2030 the Air Force will wage aerial warfare with a “family of capabilities,” according to the “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan” strategy document (PDF).

These capabilities could include hackers who can target an enemy’s aerial command-and-control systems, electronic jammers to blind rival planes’ sensors, and new B-21 stealth bombers that can, in theory, destroy enemy aircraft on the ground before they can even take off.

The closest thing to a new fighter jet that the strategy document mentions is a so-called penetrating counterair system, or PCA, that can fight or sneak its way into enemy air space to find, and ultimately help destroy, other planes.

That’s what today’s F-15 and F-22 fighters do—and what the F-35 might do, once it finally overcomes vexing technical problems and becomes combat-ready. But with Russian- and Chinese-made air defenses steadily growing more sophisticated, the U.S. Air Force isn’t assuming that existing or future fighters will be able to keep up for very long. “Advanced air and surface threats are spreading to other countries around the world,” the strategy notes.

In other words, more and more countries are getting fighters, radars, and surface-to-air missiles that can reliably shoot down American planes.

In the direst scenario, Air Force fighters simply won’t survive over enemy territory long enough to make any difference during a major war. In that case, the penetrating counterair system, or PCA, might not be a fighter jet as we currently understand it.

Instead, it could be a radar-evading drone whose main job is to slip undetected into enemy air space and use sophisticated sensors to detect enemy planes—and then pass that targeting data via satellite back to other U.S. forces. “A node in the network,” is how the strategy document describes the penetrating system’s main job.

The Air Force could start work on the penetrating counterair system in 2017, according to the new air-superiority plan. The document proposes that this possible stealth drone could team up with an “arsenal plane”—an old bomber or transport plane modified to carry potentially hundreds of long-range missiles.

Flying safely inside friendly territory, the arsenal plane could lob huge numbers of munitions over a long distance to overwhelm enemy defense and wipe out aircraft on the ground and in the air—all without a single American pilot risking his or her life on the aerial front line.

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Not coincidentally, the Pentagon announced early this year that its Rapid Capabilities Office, a secretive research-and-development organization based in Virginia, had begun work on an arsenal plane, possibly a modified B-52 bomber.

The drone-arsenal-plane combo could prove devastatingly effective. But it’s also a kind of bandaid on a self-inflicted technological wound. The Air Force needs upgraded older planes because its new planes are late and over-budget—and, as a result, dangerously close to being obsolete despite still having that new-car smell.

Besides being progressively outclassed by fast-improving enemy defenses, America’s fighters have proved increasingly expensive and difficult to develop, buy, and maintain. A single new F-35, currently the Air Force’s only in-production fighters, costs no less than $150 million—tens of millions of dollars more than the older planes it’s replacing.

In development since the late 1990s, the F-35—which bakes pricey new sensors and computers into a complex airframe—could finally become operational with the Air Force in late 2016. Budget woes and problems with the engine and software have delayed the plane’s introduction by no less than 10 years.

In order to have any hope of hanging on to the very idea of a fighter jet in 2030 and beyond, the Air Force must rethink its approach to developing planes. The service “must reject thinking focused on ‘next-generation’ platforms,” the air-superiority plan advises. “Such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal program… Pushing those limits in a formal program increases risk to unacceptable levels, resulting in cost growth and schedule slips.”

Instead, the strategy documents recommend that the Air Force separate airplane-development from the invention of new electronics. The military could develop new weapons, sensors, and communications technologies like commercial firms devise consumer products—quickly and incrementally updating a piece of equipment in order to minimize delays and keep down costs.

The Air Force could then add this rapidly-improving new gear to a basic airframe whose own development could proceed at a much slower pace. Instead of buying more than 1,700 identical F-35s over a period of 30 years—that’s the Air Force’s current plan—the flying branch could acquire a slightly-improved new plane model every year. Same fuselage, wings, and engines. New electronics and weapons.

Just like Apple releases a new, slightly better version of the iPhone every year or so, the Air Force could get a small batch of new jets on an annual basis, each batch possessing that year’s best tech.

An incremental approach to buying jets could help prolong the fighter’s usefulness in the Air Force’s arsenal. But even that won’t solve the fundamental problem America’s air arm faces at it looks ahead 15 years. Rivals have caught up to U.S. air power, and could soon make it impossible for American fighter jets—and their pilots—to survive over enemy terrain.

For that reason, the Air Force is far more likely to simply replace fighters with drones. True, air shows and movies could get a lot more boring. But the fighter’s demise could keep U.S. pilots from throwing away their lives on aerial suicide missions.