The Looming Air Superiority Train Wreck

August 30, 2016

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America is on track to lose air supremacy in contingencies involving near-peer air combat. Even as soon as next year, achieving air superiority in a war with China within a politically and operationally effective time frame might be doubtful. In a 2025 war, American aircraft losses are expected to be severe. In a 2030 war, the U.S. Air Force, after assessing currently funded improvement programs, now expects to no longer be able to win the air superiority battle.

This downward progression in U.S. airpower has been matched in terminology. After the Cold War, the buzzword was “air dominance.” In the last decade, “air supremacy” became more common and covered situations when the opposing air force was rendered ineffective. Today, the objective is “air superiority,” when the air threat is manageable at certain times and places. In the words the Air Force uses, we can see the service’s way of thinking about projecting airpower has changed from a period when own aircraft losses were unimaginable to one in which losses would hopefully be limited to an acceptable level. And 15 years hence, meeting even this low bar will be doubtful.

This downward spiral matters. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes observes: “Air superiority is the most important thing the Air Force provides for the joint force in the tactical environment.” If an air force can’t get you air superiority where and when it is needed, there may not a compelling argument for even having an air force. Gaining air superiority is an air force’s raison d’etre, and providing air superiority enables many other air, maritime, and land warfighting missions.

Even more importantly, air superiority is an important plank in conventional deterrence. Without it, adventurism by Russia, China, Iran, and others becomes much more practical. The cost-benefit ratio for revisionist states starts to change toward assertiveness and aggression, even if potential adversaries can never be completely sure of the relative military balance until combat is joined.

The U.S. Air Force has lately realized that its ability to gain future air superiority is declining, as evidenced by its recently released Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan. Somewhat startlingly, the plan observes that: “The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities.”  To address this significant operational deficiency, the as yet-unfunded plan recommends a near-term, broadly based, multi-domain improvement program that acquires better technology quickly and in large numbers. Of course, in publicly releasing such plans there are always multiple objectives including supporting force modernization, garnering public support, informing Congress, reassuring allies, and deterring potential adversaries. Even so, this specific unclassified version of the plan seems ambitious in three specific areas.

First, the Air Superiority Flight Plan advances conflicting objectives. Instead of pursuing a direct replacement for the F-22 air superiority fighter, the plan proposes a family of capabilities. This family would include quickly fielding a new, affordable penetrating counter-air capability that eschewed revolutionary next-generation technology to meet a 2030 deadline that is, after all, less than two presidents away. Meeting this timeline seems to limit options to an evolutionary development of a current aircraft, either the F-35 or F-22.

What might this penetrating counter-air platform look like? The F-35 is the obvious choice as it is already in low-rate production, but there are some concerns. The aircraft is small, heavy, and already densely packed with electronics. Thermal management has proven difficult, which makes adding new capabilities without significant changes to internal plumbing problematic. Furthermore, the aircraft’s design means fuel consumption is already high, adversely impacting range. Additional modifications may exacerbate this by adding weight. Some suggest fitting the aircraft with a new engine for range and payload improvements, but given the limited space available, this might require a major redesign. Moreover, meeting the Air Superiority Plan would mean moving the F-35 design away from its primary air-to-ground focus. History suggests turning “bombers” into “fighters” is hard.

The F-35 program’s long delays seem to demonstrate the general technical difficulty in evolving the aircraft’s design. It’s already taken almost ten years from the F-35’s first flight to reach today’s limited air-to-ground focussed initial operational capability. Several more years will pass before the aircraft has the full capabilities originally sought.  Evolving the F-35 design to the degree envisaged in the Air Superiority Plan in time to reach a 2030 full operational capability deadline seems doubtful.

In contrast with the F-35, the F-22 would need to be bought back into production to serve as the underlying platform for the penetrating counter-air capability. The F-22 has been in service for a decade and is currently undergoing modernization and reliability improvements. The F-22 is twin-engined and considerably larger than the F-35. This means the F-22 has more thrust and space available to accommodate ongoing upgrades.  The F-22, for example, can cruise supersonically and carry twice as many air-to-air missiles internally as the F-35. This much higher overall performance undergirds U.S. Air Force claims that two F-22s have a similar operational performance to eight F-35s.

This Air Force “two equals eight” claim illustrates the magnitude of the task if the aim is to upgrade the F-35 to meet the Air Superiority Plan’s objectives. This plan considers the current F-22 capabilities inadequate past 2030 while the Air Force more broadly believes an individual F-22 is noticeably superior to an individual F-35.  This implies that an evolved F-35 would first need to be bought up to the level of an F-22’s capabilities and then extended beyond that to meet the Air Superiority Plan requirements. Making the F-35 four times better at air superiority than it is now seems a big enough task without then seeking to move well beyond. Starting the evolutionary process from the F-22 as it stands now seems inherently a much more practical path.

In considering this, there is a rejoinder that mass has a quality all of its own. Greater numbers might compensate for qualitative shortcomings. The Air Superiority Plan however does not consider numbers alone can solve the emerging problems.  Simply building more F-35s is not offered as a solution; capability improvements are needed as well. An evolved F-35 though would have less commonality with the existing Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy F-35 variants, potentially adversely impacting their production and support costs, and development plans.  Given this, developing an evolved F-35 might need agreement from the other services.

This is not to say that evolving the F-22 would be easy, only that it appears simpler and quicker than doing the same for the F-35, and it would arguably result in a more robust and operationally effective platform. The cost, greater magnitude of the task, and demonstrated difficulties in F-35 development all suggest that an evolved F-22 may well be the lower cost alternative, even after factoring in production restart costs.

Secondly, such thinking raises the question of whether either the evolution of either the F-35 or F-22 is actually affordable. Answering this hinges upon where air superiority ranks against other joint force priorities. In high-end conventional warfare it is hard to argue there is any other capability more important. We must wonder, then, why hundreds of F-35s are being procured when this leads to the U.S. Air Force becoming “not capable of fighting and winning against…potential adversary capabilities.” The F-35 is also useful in lesser wars, but there it competes with lower cost drones or A-10s. Money actually appears not to be the decisive issue. There is apparently sufficient money at hand to buy a large fighter aircraft fleet that will not fix the Air Force’s identified air superiority deficiencies.

Lastly, the issue of allies has been neglected. The Air Force’s realization of its declining air superiority capabilities places America’s allies in an invidious position. With doubts now about whether the U.S. Air Force can be relied upon to win future near-peer air battles, American allies may need to reconsider their force structure plans and alliance relationships. This later aspect might be especially prominent if worries over revisionist state adventurism materialize.

An option for the allies might be to delay buying the current F-35 configuration aircraft until the U.S. Air Force’s intentions concerning new air superiority systems are clearer. At that time, allies might then be able to buy into a long-term robust air superiority solution, perhaps some element of a systems of systems that might include evolved F-22s or F-35s (if they were allowed access to these). This approach would perhaps allow them to remain operationally useful American allies past 2030 when at the moment it seems their value sharply diminishes.

The issue of future air superiority is a tough one, but impacts the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. With a lot at stake and time running out, there needs to be some deep thinking and quick, decisive action. On technical, cost, and schedule grounds, an evolved F-22 seems the most practical option to address the looming air superiority train wreck.

 

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF senior officer, he has extensive defence experience, including in the Pentagon, and a doctorate in grand strategy.

Image: U.S. Air Force

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35 thoughts on “The Looming Air Superiority Train Wreck

  1. This post seems over-wrought and greatly exaggerates the issues involved with maintaining American air superiority.

    For example the author cites the range of the F-35 as a problem to overcome, that it “small, heavy, and already densely packed with electronics” which somehow causes it to have too limited range as compared with a “real air superiority fighter”. Let me unpack that statement:

    The facts are that the F-35 already, out of the box, has a 170 nautical mile (37% higher) air combat radius advantage over the F-22 (a mere 460 nm). The latest iteration of engine design (due in the aircraft coming out of the factory in 2019 when full rate production is realized) will be 10% more fuel efficient than the current engine, implying a 10% increase in combat radius to over 700 nm. In other words, not a problem.

    Secondly, the notion that “aircraft is heavily packed with electronics” is an extremely odd way of describing the F-35’s best strength compared to not only the F-22 but every other aircraft that ever existed. It is those “electronics” – including its far superior sensor system, sensor fusion, and datalink communications with other aircraft (including drones, fighters, ground forces, and ships) that enables the F-35 to see a bogey and send its AAMs on their way to kill it long before the enemy realizes he is within killing range. These are capabilities that no other aircraft has. The F-35 also has superior radar and defensive ECM capabilities that no other air superiority platform has, or is likely to have for many years to come.

    Finally, after you sense an enemy, remain undetected, and are prepared to defend yourself, the kill is actually made by an AAM – today’s arsenal for both the F-35 and the F-22 includes the short range AIM-9x and the long range AAMRAM-120. There is no difference in kill capability between the two aircraft.

    Now it may be true that the Air Force leaders want some additional capabilities to improve on the air superiority qualities of the F-35 that will need further development. That is to be expected, as most new fighter/attack aircraft have gone through multiple developmental versions to emphasize one capability or another … such as the F-15 with its original air superiority platform that eventually included the F-15 Strike Eagle attack aircraft … and the F/A-18 that eventually evolved a SEAD version called the Growler. This is the way it’s done. It is very smart to build new capabilities into a proven airframe.

    None of this is to say there are no challenges to the US in maintaining clear air superiority. But recognize that these are very expensive programs with long lead times, and our two closest “near-pear” competitors, Russia and China, simply do not have the economic resources to compete with the US in developing such weapons in the numbers we are building today. They may issue a poor copy of the F-35 that only superficially resembles the Lightning II but has little of what actually makes the F-35 superior .. or even build a few that are fairly close in capability, but neither Russia or China can field over 3,000 of them as are the USA and our allies. It’s not just the capability of an individual aircraft that matters – it is the combined capability of air forces that matters.

    1. I don’t think the main threat to the US aircraft will come from other aircraft but from ground based integrated air defense systems. Suppressing them will be the main challenge.

      1. Markenoff – and that is precisely where the F-35 already shines the brightest, is in SEAD. The combination of stealth, superior sensors, sensor fusion, superior ECM, and the ability to both jam radars (something that is rarely mentioned by the military, as it would likely prefer to keep that “under the radar”, pardon the pun), and ability to carry any air to ground munition that exists, including “wild weasel” HARM weps like the AGM 88.

        This does not mean we can declare victory and go home. But we already have unchallenged air superiority between the F-35 and the F-22. Indeed, one of the areas of tactical development and training now beginning in the Air Force is integration of the F-35 and F-22 fighter wings. The early pilots of the F-35 are already beginning to think and develop tactics, and to work on them jointly with the F-22 pilots, that the aircraft developers did not even consider. In turn those pilots are going to come back to their commanders with some wish list items for future development of both weps systems.

  2. What does it take to get air supremacy? Does that mean not only is every enemy aircraft which takes to the skies quickly neutralized but also that ground based integrated air defense systems where we wish to operate are also neutralized?

    I think the future is not with manned fighters but with unmanned drones flown from simulator type “cockpits” connected to the drones for mission execution. Without a human in the platform they can be smaller and can execute maneuvers which are beyond the endurance of the human pilot. They can also stay on station longer as control of the drone could be passed from one pilot to another as the first gets fatigued. And if the drone gets shot down you don’t lose a valuable trained pilot. You just connected the ground based “cockpit” to another drone and they are back in the battle.

    1. Connecting ground-based ‘cockpits’ to drones thousands of miles away truly underscores the need for a secure, unhackable/unjammable communications. Puts that Chinese satellite testing secure quantum communications into perspective.

    2. Yes, drones are a key part, but totally unmanned isn’t the answer either. Rather, a hybrid multi-layer system is what’s contemplated for the next couple of decades.

      The F-35 is already designed and fully capable of leading a flock of linked drones, utilizing dispersed and more forward-deployed sensors, datalinked with the F-35, where the data are analyzed and fused automatically to give the F-35 pilot far more battle awareness than any ground based drone operate thousands of miles away can have. For instance, the F-35 could link with and control drones that are both up very high, and down very low on the deck, if that is what the mission requires – and then fuse all the sensor data together to build a shooting solution. The linked drones can also carry munitions, and of course drones can be just as or more stealthy as the F-35.

  3. If we are buying over 2,000 brand new “Joint Strike Fighters”, and yet we will not have air superiority in 14 years, the I agree: shutter the Air Force!

    What an absurdity. We are buying thousands of supposedly world-beating jets in the largest defense program the world has ever seen, and yet the Air Force supposedly claims we won’t have air superiority in 2030.

    Either they are lying, or they are completely incompetent.

    1. Did you actually look at the Links in the article?
      One the author isn’t in the USAF.
      The Air Force isn’t saying we won’t have Air Superiority.
      2 of the links are RAND reports the other AF Paper was the same standard strategy goobledegook about updating our doctrine and acquisition process

    2. Craziness isn’t it. China doesn’t really have that many planes to begin with. We really shouldn’t be building 3,000 F-22s with 1,500 in Europe against the Russkies and 1,500 ready against the Chinese.

      1. europe has 500+ eurofighters, typhoons, gripens, f-16s…if europe organized proper defense with ground and sea assets, russia is easy to defend..you dont need us assets….japan and sk can defend themselves….that leaves taiwan and philippines…philippines is too far and too big to invade without time for us reponse..for .taiwan just put up a AA/AD zone of highest quality and redundancy….

  4. The article is structured in such a way that some may read the message to be that offensive drone squadrons en masse could be ‘the only solution’.

    The implications there, AI making kill decisions, etc, lie on a slippery slope.

    Moving on, the thing that will fix the issue is procurement reform. Let the warfighter develop what is needed and purchase it. The primary barrier there though is getting Congress to let go of how money is spent.

    The other reform needed is that a program must be in the hands of One person and their staff, where that one person (and their superior[s]) is the one with the power of Yea or Nay. Generally speaking, the situation today is that numerous people Within a program have the power or Yea or Nay, with no consequences placed upon them concerning delays or mistakes.

  5. Focusing on the next fighter aircraft almost misses the point of AS2030:

    “Threat capabilities are likely to advance along two major vectors over the next 15
    years. First, traditional threat systems will continue to evolve and proliferate. Along this
    threat vector are advanced fighter aircraft, sensors, and weapons…. The second threat vector is a series of comprehensive capabilities with a less predictable impact on warfare. These include increased threat capabilities to negate our advantages in the space domain, increased quantity and sophistication of cyberspace threats, and air threats including hypersonic weapons, low observable cruise missiles, and sophisticated conventional ballistic missile systems….”

    Looking into the next 10-15 years, shooting enemy aircraft out of the sky is, in many ways, the least of our problems. Depending on where in the world you’re looking, the air superiority may be as reliant on a secure airfield for tankers as it is on fighters.

    I especially found the following statement intriguing:

    “…the rapidly changing operational environment means the Air Force can no longer afford to develop weapon systems on the linear acquisition and development timelines using traditional approaches…. The traditional approach guarantees adversary cycles will outpace U.S. development….

    This is probably as much a threat to USAF capabilities as anything developed in Russia or China. The F-22 took 25 years from requirements definition to initial operating capability. The KC-46 — a modified version of an airplane in production since 1982, and already operated as a tanker by three other air forces — is at five years and counting. No wonder aircraft are getting more expensive — their development timelines stretch

  6. Who was stupid enough to focus the F-35 development on ground strikes rather than focus the money on a successor to the F-22? Focusing on the air superiority mission and how to achieve it at all levels (strategic, theater, operational, tactical) should be the modus operandi for all development, regardless of existing solutions. Creating a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ was ridiculous, especially given the budgetary outlay and the limitations imposed by having to pander to the multi-mission conundrum.

    1. In many respects the F-35 is superior to the F-22 in air to air superiority … much superior sensors … it has sensor fusion which the F-22 does not have at all … carries the same AAM weps internally … and has datalink allowing the F-35 to vacuum up sensor data from sensors all over the battle space, which the F-22 cannot do at all. Oh, and the F-35 costs about half of what a F-22 costs to buy and operate. About the only slight advantages of the F-22 over the F-35 are a slight max speed advantage, and tighter turn radius in the event of a dogfight that hasn’t happened once with an American fighter for over 25 years. The whole basis of the F-35 design is to not let bogeys approach undetected before the F-35 can sense, shoot, and kill the bogey. The F-35 also has superior defensive capabilities over the F-22, including the ability to sense and assess incoming threats and automatically deploy countermeasures without pilot intervention. And aircraft top speed doesn’t matter much when firing typical AAMs, since they generally travel at least two or three times as fast as any manned aircraft.

      The F-35 can be configured fully for AA or AG or a mix, just as the F-22. But the F-35 can carry both more weight in munitions than the F-22, and it can carry longer munitions in the internal bay than can the F-22, which matters for some of the anti-ship, anti-surface, and HARM weps.

      1. F-22 Does have sensor and data fusion. But any pertinent info is classified. That’s why you haven’t heard of it. F-22 does have DAS, and a rudimentary form of EOTS. It’s only missing the F-35’s $400,000 helmet to fuse the data for the pilot. It’s still in the HUD and 1st gen glass cockpit.

  7. I think it’s a bit pre-mature to say the USAF or the US in general is losing Air Superiority, particularly to China or even to Russia for that matter, our only two near peers.

    Let’s set aside a moment the various war with China scenarios, which while popular on the wargame circuit and obviously in the think tank studies, don’t actually delve into the specific capabilities of the PLAAF and PLAN.

    If you’re going to talk about Air Superiority, there are a number of factors to consider
    •PLA, PLAAF, PLAN pilots, aircrews, air defense crews have ZERO operational experience, meaning they don’t have a single person, that’s actually been in any kind of military conflict
    •PLAAF and PLAN pilots do not receive the same level of training as our pilots from basic instruction, annual flight hours and advanced schooling like (Weapons School, Top Gun)
    •They also do not conduct large scale integrated air exercises like we do (Red Flag, Green Flag, Blue Flag, Maple Flag, etc.)
    That’s not to say they can’t or won’t improve their training, but it’s hard to train like you would fight, when they have no pilots and instructors with any combat experience. That experience is what gives our pilots an advantage regardless of which platform they are flying.

    As far aircraft on the PLAAF and PLAN side, yes they are modernizing, but they’re doing so by copying other companies’ stuff. They went from working with the Russians on Flankers to building their copy/ version to jumping into the J-20 and J-31, but they don’t have the institutional knowledge that the Russians and we do of developing these systems on their own, making mistakes and making improvements along the way, that includes having the knowledge from dozens of test pilots with thousands of hours of flight time testing new aircraft. It’s a pretty poor assumption that the PLAAF and PLAN are going to have any kind of advantage even if the J-20 and J-31 do go into full production and enter operational service.

    The other glaring issue is for any conflict scenario with China, why are you limiting the discussion to the F-22 and F-35? Those won’t be the only Fighter Aircraft in service in the 2025-2035 timeframe, plus the Navy and Marine Corp and likely our Allies as well, would be involved in such a scenario.
    Air superiority doesn’t happen with fighters operating on their own, this isn’t WWII. We train and fight with integrated ops, which just might include cruise missile strikes against air defense targets to knock out those S-300/S-400 and their associated radars, before the first air sortie even launches.

    1. Mike – very good points all around.

      Especially about the lack of warfighting experience by the Chinese. Tactics and knowledge are at least as important in any fighting unit .. superior tactics and knowledge frequently have proved to win over superior hardware (not all the time, but many times). Just as superior tactics allowed the Allies in our barely-adequate Sherman tanks to beat the Germans and their superior Tiger tanks … and as the American’s obviously outclassed F4F Wildcats learned how to defeat the superior Japanese A6M Zeroes in the Pacific war, achieving a 7:1 kill ratio over the Zero. Our current generation of F-35 pilots, in concert with our F-22 pilots, are only beginning to develop warfighting tactics with their new hardware and software.

      Similarly, the armchair critics always ignore the fact that the Chinese have no allies in the Western Pacific. None, as in zip, nada, none at all. Whereas the United States is allied not only on paper but in actual operations with some very powerful military forces in Japan, South Korea, and Australia … all of whom are up arming including fielding their own squadrons of F-35s that are learning how to fight those airplanes jointly with their American counterparts.

      Let’s also not forget the American’s “wink, wink, nod, nod” alliance with the powerful Republic of China. And we are now forging much closer mutual defense relationships with other regional powers including the Philippines, India (a huge and growing naval power), and even Vietnam (with whom we just signed an arms supply agreement). If China were to attempt to practice their much-vaunted, over-hyped, and totally un-demonstrated A2/AD war against the USA, they would also be taking on a slew of regional opponents too … all based right there in the ECS and SCS on “unsinkable aircraft carriers”.

      Can someone explain how China is going to impose air dominance over Japan? Or South Korea? Really, I’d be fascinated to hear how that would all work out. Not to mention how China, which has never executed a single opposed amphibious invasion of anywhere in the world, is going to somehow be expected to conquer the first and second island chains.

      1. That’s a good point about them not having any allies, they really don’t have one.

        They’ve used the Russians to obtain military technology, but even that relationship is tentative at best.

        They tolerate the North Koreans, but NK isn’t going to support them in any kind of conflict, particularly against us, as the NK Regime is only interested in survival.

        They’ve pissed off all their other neighbors, with these ridiculous claims over the islands chains, in the SCS, so there is certainly no love lost their.

        It’s pretty interesting that everyone equates China’s military modernization to mean they want to start a conflict, however what if they’re just trying to keep others out, they are surrounded by nuclear powers (Russia, India and Pakistan). They certainly can’t afford to be isolationists, since they’ve embraced a hybrid communist/capitalism, but they don’t really have any allies either, so they only thing they can do is outspend their neighbors on military hardware and hope for the best

        1. Right again, Mike. China doesn’t want a war with its neighbors, which it knows it would lose and would be fatal to their economic system which is built on trade and export of cheap goods. What China wants is to scare its neighbors into coming under their hegemony and to create a Chinese “sphere of influence” which has not existed since the middle ages. But as you say, their actions have been counterproductive in terms of results, by motivating their neighbors instead to ally more tightly than ever with the United States. TPP will be the final nail in the coffin to China’s failed attempt at bullying.

  8. Sigh. This argument is all about stealth. And stealth is incredibly difficult. It took the US over two decades to build into the F-35 a stealth technology that did not have to be parked in a climate and humidity controlled hanger.

    So why is stealth a game changer? Because other aircraft cannot acquire targeting information on a F-35 more than a few miles away. Thus the F-35 is the perfect weapon to send in at night 30 feet off the ground (and yes that is trivial for the F-35 because of its overriding ground collision avoidance software) and shove HARM missiles down the throat of every radar source it can detect. Chinese and Russian A2/AD will not be any impediment to the F-35. Plus no fourth generation fighter stands a chance against a F-35.

    Basically China and Russia are probably a decade away from building an aircraft equivalent to the F-35. Them building a F-22 is probably a few years further out than that. I doubt that either nation has the machining capabilities needed to create the fractal patterns evident on the skin of the F-22 in composite material.

  9. Cost is an issue. And it’s not just a monetary issue, it’s one of trained pilots in any such potential conflict with adversaries such as Russia or China. Fielding enough F-22’s and F-35’s to a combat theater I suspect wouldn’t be enough to maintain air superiority let alone supremacy or dominance. And since as the piece points out that the F-35’s upgradability past it’s current goals is limited and restarting production of the F-22 is onerous at this point, the US needs to develop more drones.

    By developing more drones, we can take advantage of multiple synergies: lower developer and operating costs, human pilots’ lives, and a quantity advantage. I propose that we develop one or two basic types of drones that can be easily and developed on a massive scale. They should be VTOL because of the China threat in specific where we and our allies are likely to take heavy missile bombardment of bases, we’ll need more basing options. One drone should have several slaved drones that operate as a small squadron (as the F-35 is envisioned). All the drones should be stealth and they should have interchangeable mission specific capabilities – not unlike the littoral concept for the Navy. If you keep the parts interchangeable, that means we can also mass produce those specific capabilities such as electronic and jamming warfare, air-to-air capabilities, bombing capabilities and of course information sharing for our human piloted craft. And because they’re drones, they should be able to have better fuel efficiency and provide blanket coverage over an entire battle space on a consistent basis.

    1. I take it you haven’t been following our unmanned aircraft developments over the last 20 years.

      It’s one thing to say we should develop more drones and mass produce them, but the reality is something else.

      There’s a reason unmanned aircraft have been limited to ISR and a few to the Hunter-Killer missions in our Middle East operations.

      There’s a reason the Air Force abandoned the joint UCAV program and now the navy is the only service moving forward with that concept at a much slower pace.

      Different missions require different platforms, there is no one size fits all platform that could work for EW, Air to Air, bomber, unless of course you want something the same size and cost of a manned fighter.

      Just because the platform is unmanned doesn’t mean it’s going to be dirt cheap, look at the RQ-4 Global HAWK and the UCAV as examples, they are no less expensive than the manned aircraft they were meant to replace.

      VTOL on any platform, manned or not is going to be expensive, there is no reason to pursue that technology

      1. Yup …. it seems that most armchair generals only think in binary terms .. it’s all about stealth vs. non-stealth .. it’s all about manned vs. un-manned … it’s all about China vs. America or Russia vs. America.

        The reality of warfighting technology and doctrine as well as regional alliances is it’s not a bipolar world.

        The F-35 does not stand by itself. It is but a (highly capable) node in a system that links what the F-35 does with what networked drones do with what other manned fighter/attack aircraft do with what stand-off arsenal aircraft do with what ground forces do …. ad infinitum.

        The Chinese are basically standing alone in pretending to end American dominance in the Western Pacific, while the Americans have a slew of close regional allies in the Western Pacific who are also armed with the F-35 system, along with all the other networked resources mentioned above and many more, and who are training with Americans and even making mods to the F-35 that are being shared with other users .. and our allies are already fully “forward deployed” on land, the sea, and in the air. Ditto with Russia and our NATO allies in Europe.

        People need to stop thinking that this is a binary world.

    2. And I’m getting a flying pony for Christmas, too. :)

      Drones (UAV, UAS, RPV, and all other iterations) are just as complex as any other comparable aircraft — lack of an on-board pilot does not make them less so! Banish the fantasy of lower costs — if you want your drone to substitute for an F-22 or an F-35, you have to build in all the same aerodynamics, propulsion, sensors, and weapons. And while you don’t have to build a cockpit into the airplane, you have to build one somewhere else, even if it’s just a set of displays and a command interface to give the aircraft instructions. There also needs to be a person in the loop who’s trained in how to employ this weapons system in combat — right now, we call those “pilots”, and give them the additional duty of physically controlling the airplane. Nor does getting rid of the pilot inherently make an aircraft more fuel efficient, because the additional equipment required to assure communications tends to restore most of the weight and the drag-producing bumps lost when removing the cockpit.

      Interchangeable mission modules are possible — look at the U-2’s Q-bay — but they’re not simple to design in, particularly when considering different requirements weight, space, power, cooling, field of view (for sensors), and separation (for weapons). Our most common “modular mission adaptor” is a wing or fuselage pylon, but that doesn’t help you with (radar) stealth.

      The Army’s run some very interesting experiments teaming drones with manned helicopters…no one’s tried that yet at transonic speeds. Not unsolvable, but complex. Let’s not get into machines controlling machines….

      1. Warlock,

        The F-35 is also being teamed up with drones, with a single F-35 pilot and his/her onboard systems being designed and trained to collect sensor data from a flock of drones, perhaps oriented high-low, or forward-rear, and fuse the data into shooting solutions. The drones, primarily Reapers, carry a potent weps load and can be used by the F-35 drivers to conduct multiple shots at multiple targets, on the ground and/or in the air.

        1. The only thing I’ve seen come out of the AFSB or Right-Pitiful is “someday”.

          Color me skeptical about adapting MQ-9s as automated “wingmen”. The Reaper is still very much a hand-flown aircraft, rather than commanded. And difference in flight envelopes seals it — the Reaper is hard-pressed to exceed 250 kts flat out. It’s difficult to choreograph a fight on the fly; a 300 kt difference is crippling.

          I suspect the Air Force is waiting to see how the Navy’s unmanned tanker pans out, then figure out what that means to their requirements.

  10. Call it paranoia, but the well documented development problems associated with the F-35 and the new generation of aircraft carrier, when taken in conjunction with the pilot shortage and historically small number of young men and women who qualify for military service due to a myriad of reasons, makes any potential conflict with a near-peer adversary scary. Betting on a technological leap that makes full-spectrum unmanned weaponry a practical reality is chancy at best. Let’s take those in the know at their word and get on with the important business of restoring our prohibitive superiority over all potential adversaries.

  11. Yeah right. First look. First shot. First kill. Stealth is significantly undervalued by unimaginative defense “analysts”. I would be highly surprised if China, by 2025, can do much better than the 0.5 m^2 RCS of a fully upgraded F-18. To bad about that 0.003 m^2 F-35 RCS of the F-35 or that 0.0001 m^2 of the F-22. Then there is sensor fusion, shared battlefield awareness, and the sensor capabilities of the F-35. Russia and China are developing fifth generation fighters in name only. It will be a while before they can even compete with an upgraded F-18. Stealth rules on the battlefield. You cannot kill what you cannot see.

    1. Radar stealth is only useful until some other signature comes up on the scope — IR, visual, etc. And in offensive warfare, we have the disadvantage of having to go to the enemy.

  12. If you’re fighting a near peer, you don’t expect it to be easy to gain supremacy. That’s practically the definition of peer.

    Realistically, China is in the long term going to have an economy and military budget larger than that of the US, initially in PPP terms but eventually in exchange terms as well. To think the US will nonetheless maintain air supremacy is a fantasy. In a theatre where geography favours China – say, the Taiwan strait – this will happen sooner.

    The US has done very well to see off challengers like Russia and Japan but nothing lasts forever and China is going to be tough.

    1. David – I believe you are wrong in your assumption that China is going to out produce the USA any time soon, as their economy today is still barely half of ours, and their economy depends hugely on foreign trade and cheap exports, which an actual shooting war would destroy instantaneously. A shooting war would not damage the US economy very much at all, if at all.

      And as I pointed out above, China has ZERO allies, while the USA has powerful, economically and militarily capable allies right there, just across the ECS and SCS, from China. And those allies are closely collaborating with the USA in military preparedness, drills, and sharing the latest generation of weapons systems such as the F-35 and numerous common munitions.

      And, you are ignoring the value of actual war experience, wherein tactics are devised and military judgment is honed. China has none. They have not fought any kind of war since 1969 (against the Russians), so none of their military personnel have any actual battle experience. They have never fought in submarine or ASW warfare (the USA has been continuously engaged in that since the 1920s), or amphibious warfare (the Chinese have never mounted an amphibious landing), nor have the Chinese engaged in air to air warfare since the Korean War.

      The Chinese are simply running a bluff, trying to intimidate their regional neighbors into submitting to their hegemony … and their bluff has already failed, spectacularly. Now all the Chinese can do is try to save face.

  13. Agreed. Like it or not, F-22 is the only adaptive airframe available for U.S. to 2030. Allies can’t wait to 2030 for a potential F-35 alternative, so a baseline configuration tailorable to their specific requirements would be attractive.Reference