Related Video Above: F-35s to Europe
The Air Force’s arriving 6th-generation stealth fighter will replace the F-22 Raptor, the F-15 EX will bring a massive weapons load in support of air combat, the F-35 will replace hundreds of legacy 4th-generation fighters and a number of F-16s will be upgraded with new technology to absorb missions that don’t require a 5th-generation fighter.
Air Force Future Fighting Aircraft: Four-Plus-One
These developments comprise the fundamental essence of the Air Force’s plan for its Future Fighter Force, a strategy which seeks to adjust the current number of 7 different fighter fleets down to four-plus-one.
“We are sitting on seven fighter fleets and its expensive, so we are getting down to four fleets. We’ve brought on more than 300 F-35s and they are now the second largest fleet in our fighter fleet,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interesting interview event.
The specifics of the four-plus-one plan include the addition of the 6th-generation aircraft, continued development of the F-35 as the cornerstone of the force, F-15EX and upgraded F-16, with the “plus one” being the A-10.
Nahom outlined a number of details to this, explaining that the F-22 will of course continue to be upgraded with new software, weapons and sensors to fly for several remaining decades until sufficient numbers of the Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Generation aircraft arrives. “NGAD will ensure air dominance, yet the F-22 will remain a dominant platform. We will continue to upgrade it, yet there will come a time when we will need a new platform,” Nahom said.
As for the F-16, Nahom explained it will remain crucial for homeland defense and other missions which do not require a so-called “exquisite” fifth generation aircraft. The F-16s will be getting new AESA radars and function as a multi-role fighter for those missions which, as Nahom put it, “we don’t need a high-end platform for.”
Fundamentally, the Future Fighter Force strategy is aimed at pivoting or shifting the force from a largely 1980s-era legacy Air Force to a modern group of fighters well positioned to outmatch and destroy enemy 5th-generation aircraft and air defenses operated by major “peer” adversaries such as Russia and China.
“Our fighter force was designed for a Soviet force,” Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command, said at the 2021 Air Force Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “We are behind and our current incremental rate of change is insufficient. Fighter Roadmap is a change in investment priorities required for a peer fight. The fighter force will again need to flex from its original design to defeat a peer threat. We need to face the realities of a new threat environment and that requires the fighter force to change.”
The evolving plan also seems to signify that, quite simply, the arrival of multi-role fighters such as the F-35 means that fewer actual aircraft designs can accomplish a wider range of missions. The F-35 is arriving in larger numbers and can, for instance, …. perform air-to-air attacks, long-range targeting and sensing, air dropped bombing and even Close Air Support.
The NGAD 6th-gen aircraft, while expected to function as a high-speed, stealthy air-dominance platform to out perform an F-22, may also incorporate certain multirole capabilities. What much of this means is that hundreds of older F-15s and F-16s are likely on the fast-track to the boneyard.
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