Redefining the Next Generation Fighter Aircraft: Build Out Air Combat Capability by Shaping a 21st Century Version of the Century Aircraft


2017-12-01 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

As the USAF looks to its evolving air combat capability for 21st century operations, clearly continuing the path of innovation being shaped by the Pilot Operators of the capabilities of the fifth-generation aircraft is a crucial driver for change.

The introduction of sensor fusion aircraft with new secure communication systems and an ability to trigger a wide range of multi-domain combat assets is the foundation for understanding what comes next.

And what comes next is less a generational shift defined by the platform than by its inherent upgradeability to insert many user directed requirements furthering the ability to enhance the airpower revolution generated by the fifth generation aircraft and building out the C2 and multi-domain strike capabilities of the 21st century combat force.

It is less about a platform than what is inside those platforms but also what those platforms can provide as a driver of broader combat capabilities.

With the entering of the software defined aircraft, a platform can be its own follow on with regard to evolving capabilities within and its ability to reach out to other assets in the combat space.

This in a very similar way that the iPhone 8 is an enhanced iPhone 7.

Recently, we had a chance to talk with Secretary Michael Wynne about a way to do a 21st century version of the Century Series of tactical aircraft design and testing.

His vision would leverage the software upgrade revolution and built out from the significant strategic shift which fifth generation aircraft have introduced by using an F-22 as the initial test bed design.

This would allow hardware and software upgrades to drive the change that many Pilots are questing.

Combining the proven combat strengths of both the F-22 and F-35,  Secretary Wynne is proposing an accelerator, building from lessons learned with existing assets, but taking full advantage of subsystem research to shape a force multiplier further empowering the air superiority/combat revolution.

Rather than simply design a paper aircraft and then fill in the dots, Secretary Wynne has forcefully argued the case for taking the F-22 and recrafting the aircraft to shape a follow on combat capability.

The F-22 is maturing; being used a lot more than expected and will need modernization; but rather than simply modernizing from the baseline mold lines of the current aircraft, Wynne suggest combining modernization with a measured science and technology effort to rethink what is inside the aircraft subsystems and relevant design or engine features.

F-22 Raptors from the 94th Fighter Squadron, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. and F-35 Lightening IIs from the 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. fly in formation over the Eglin Training Range after completing an integration training mission Nov. 5, 2014. F-35s and F-22 Raptors integrated throughout four missions to fight against T-38 Talons to improve employment of fifth generation aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)

According to Secretary Wynne, “I need to evolve a better airplane than the F-22 to have the same command and control characteristics as the F-35.

“I need the F-22 flight characteristics to be marginally better, in the speed of flight; range and, and perhaps even stealth capability.

“But I need it to be massively better in the command and control, and targeting aspects.

“To get there, one could take two aging F-22s, give one to the Phantom Works and give one to the Skunk Works and ask them a simple question: how would you make this airplane better than it is?

“They would be given a budget for a three year effort and an open field in front of them.

“The USAF could send in crew and support teams to the two centers to enable them to determine what the pilots really want. But it is up to the Phantom Works and Skunk Works at the end of three years to deliver their best effort modified F-22.”

At the end of the three year period, the USAF would have two variants of the evolved F-22 to choose from and can compare those two modified aircraft with the extant one to determine if the modifications really make the kind of combat difference the USAF would want.

“It is apparent we have settled on stealth; we have settled on speed under control; we have settled on needs for C2 built into the aircraft. We do not need to go back and redefine those using the requirements process. Rather lets use them as massive beta tests with current and past operators as the critics.

“We know and are learning the parameters for the evolving F-35 and F-22 air combat force.

“Make this airplane extend the capabilities of the total force.”

“What is a sixth gen aircraft? Right now, it is an evolved gen five airplane, with plenty of feedback—and competition for the future.

“And what is that?

“The F-22 was optimally designed for penetration and speed.

“By leveraging as well what we are seeing in the F-35 we can shape its battle manager capabilities and roles as well.

“This allows one to jump the lengthy requirements setting process and gets the development teams focused on the ‘beta’ feedback for how to build out a better aircraft within the parameters of what a fifth-generation evolution is generating for the combat force.

“If you don’t like the outcome of this particular three-year study, you can commence a ten-year development program for what you perceive as the next generation air combat asset.”

“I would be very surprised, however if Skunk Works and Phantom Works did not come back with a very capable aircraft, one which can work with the extant F-22 as a baseline and by leveraging new electronics, new propulsion and maybe even modified designs make the F-22 a better contributor to the combat space.”

“I am paying homage to the requirements process which gave us fifth generation airplanes; I am not just revisiting what they did. I am building out from that to accelerate fielded innovation.”

“It also is not a done deal because what comes out in three years may be not as good as the current commanders want. I would be very surprised if that happens, and thus would encourage taking the risk.”

By working from the concluded fifth generation requirements process forward, user feedback would be driving the redesign of the evolved F-22.

“We now have the actuality of a software upgradable system. We have an air combat system that actually addresses all levels of military from a multi-domain perspective.

“And I can fly my modified F-22 against a fifth gen fleet of F-22s and F-35s and to determine the quality of the contribution of the modified aircraft to the combat force. It is not about an abstract platform development process; it is about taking the fifth generation revolution forward to a new level of capability and performance.”

“The gen 5.0 airplanes surprisingly brought our Combat Forces something different that I didn’t realize it was bringing. I thought it was bringing me advanced stealth and combat power, but what it really brought me was air battle management and ground battle management.

“The next generation may well be upon us with the evolution of C2 and battle management as we get re-task the big airplanes that have done battle management and basically subsume it in a web of fifth generation airplanes in contested battlespace.”

Editor’s Note: As the US and allied forces shift focus from slo mo to high tempo and high intensity operations, the proposal of Wynne to leverage the F-22 combined with the coming of the new bomber, and the foundational build out of US and allied F-35s can provide a significant shift in the capabilities available to the liberal democracies.

The illiberal powers are working hard to reshape the world order to their advantage.

And reshaping capabilities for the US and the allies rapidly is an option if one follows the F-35 buildout, the leveraging of the F-22 and integrating the bomber into the air combat revolution.

Editor’s Note: For earlier Wynne pieces which provide further understanding of how air power is evolving see the following:

The F-35B in the Perspective of Aviation History