(Washington, D.C.) A close look at the Air Force budget seems to indicate that, despite the criticisms, hesitation and debate surrounding the F-35, the service is accelerating its transition from a largely 4th-generation force of fighters … to 5th and 6th-generation aircraft.
The evidence that a large-scale migration toward the F-35 is gaining momentum is not only seen in the Air Force request for 48 new F-35s in 2022 but, perhaps to an even greater extent, noticeable in the fast-pace at which legacy 4th-generation aircraft are being retired or replaced by F-35s. However, despite the existing numbers of F-35s which are called for in the budget, many senior lawmakers, such as Sen. James Inhofe - (R-Okla), continue to express concern about acquisition plans for the 5th-gen aircraft and ask why there are no F-35s on the “unfunded list” of priorities sent to Congress.
Despite what many see as insufficient numbers of F-35s requested in the budget, the aircraft is progressively expanding its presence within the Air Force, as their arrival parallels a large-scale retirement of 4th-Gen fighters. The Air Force budget calls for the retirement of 48 F-15C/D Eagles and 47 of its oldest F-16C/D Vipers, according to a budget summary identified in The Drive. Furthermore, the Air Force hopes to retire as many as 124 Vipers by 2026 and retire six squadrons worth of F-16s. All of this is, according to senior Air Force weapons developers, part of a massive air fleet overhaul migrating the fighter force to the F-35 in larger numbers. Are the new F-35s arriving fast-enough in sufficient numbers? Perhaps not.
The budget does ask for 12 more F-15EX 4th-generation planes, while concurrently moving to retire the entire fleet of legacy F-15s by 2026.
All of these maneuvers seem to illustrate a larger fleet configuration transformation wherein the Air Force is trying to migrate its fighter force more fully toward the F-35, despite the criticisms of the aircraft and continued disagreements related to F-35 costs.
4th-Generation Aircraft | F-15 and F-16
Many are likely to welcome a rapid Air Force transition to greater numbers of 5th-generation aircraft, given the pace at which both Russia and China continue to add 5th-gen stealth aircraft to their forces. The concern among many has been that acquiring large numbers of F-15EXs in place of F-35s might result in the construction of a future force comprised of a large percentage of 4th-generation aircraft potentially ill-equipped to confront major power rivals in the air.
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Furthermore, despite the extent of many successful upgrades and service life extension programs which have been pursued with the F-15 and F-16, they are nonetheless still 1980s-era non-stealthy aircraft. The presence of stealth is key here, because regardless of the massive extent to which radar, weapons, sensors and computing have been completely transformed on 4th-Generation aircraft through upgrades, a non-stealthy plane may have little opportunity to complete with a stealthy enemy 5th-generation fighter such as a Chinese J-20 or Russian Su-57.
U.S. Air Force 6th-Generation Stealth Fighter Jet
Also, a less visible component of this transition away from 4th-generation aircraft may simply be that the Air Force has big plans for its emerging and now-airborne 6th-generation stealth fighter jet which could potentially form a very large portion of the future Air Force fighter fleet.
The Air Force is asking for $1.5 billion in 2022 to support its already airborne Next Generation Air Dominance 6th generation stealth fighter jet program, a massive jump from last year which indicates growing enthusiasm and ambitious plans for the new platform.
While little to no details about the aircraft are likely to be available for security reasons, the budget plus up of $623 million over last year might offer a window into the program to some degree, if in a general way. If the aircraft is already flying, and there are already fast-arriving budget increases in a budget year where they are tough to come by, there may be reason to surmise that the service has extremely ambitious plans for the aircraft. Much can be learned from initial demonstrator flights, which may be solidifying key conceptions about how new technological paradigms can inform stealth fighter attack.
It would not seem at all surprising if more demonstrators were built and flown in the near future, and perhaps the program may even engineer more than one variant or several airframe options. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown has already indicated there may be two variants of the aircraft… a larger NGAD for the Pacific able to carry more fuel and extend ranges and improve endurance across the maritime expanse, and a smaller and potentially more maneuverable European variant not facing the same geographical barriers known to exist in the Pacific theater.
Perhaps some of the initial thinking is centered around the possibility that a 6th-Generation fleet could be quite large, something which might indicate that weapons developers and futurists want to avoid the mistake that was made years ago when the F-22 Raptor program was abruptly cut. The concept is likely based upon the anticipation that the Air Force will need a fighter jet capable of flying well into the 2080s and beyond.
Concepts related to the 6th-generation aircraft bring some interesting possibilities to mind. What if a single aircraft were able to operate with speed, maneuverability and air-supremacy capability superior to an F-22, while also incorporating a suite of AI-enabled sensors, ISR capability and advanced computing superior to an F-35? Not only could it combine or integrate the best attributes of each of these 5th-Generation aircraft, but perhaps it could bring new breakthrough levels of performance able to greatly exceed 5th-Gen capability. Most of all, the largest developmental priority for 6th-generation engineers is likely related to making something upgradeable. The aim is mostly likely related to architecting a technical infrastructure such that the aircraft can quickly accommodate new weapons, sensors and performance enhancing software upgrades.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.