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Video Above: Why is Advanced Stealth Still "Very Hard to Hit?"

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Eliminate the F-15EX, increase F-35 production and begin a new-start “Multi Role X” stealth fighter program to propel the force into the future are a few of the cutting edge ideas or proposals entertained in a just-released Mitchell Institute for Aerospace report on the Air Force’s fighter force.

The study, called “The Future Fighter Force our Nation Requires: Bridge to the Future,” outlines a series of innovative ideas intended to ensure the Air Force fleet can sustain global dominance in a world increasingly filled with Chinese and Russian 5th-generation stealth fighter aircraft. 

Sky In Crisis

The report lists a number of detailed recommendations to include a call to completely divest F-15C/D, A-10Cs and F-15E inventories. 

The recommendations reflect a significant overall sensibility which favors “new” over “legacy,” meaning 1980s-era 4th-generation fighters should move toward extinction and platforms such as an upgraded 5th-generation F-22, F-35 or 6th-Generation Next Generation Air Dominance need to expand even further as defining elements of a future force.

The thinking expressed in the study seems to be grounded in the firm belief that Russian and Chinese air defenses are simply too advanced, precise and effective for older airframes to survive. It is upon this basis that the Mitchell Study calls for the divestiture of the much-discussed and massively upgraded F-15EX, as it is still a fourth generation airframe from the 1980s.

F-15EX

F-15EX

“Although F-15C/Ds, the F-16C/Ds, and A-10Cs have all benefited from service life extension and modernization programs, the fact remains that they cannot be upgraded to the point where they can survive in advanced threat environments,” the study states.

F-16s

The study does recommend continued life for one 4th-generation aircraft, being the F-16. This is perhaps related to thinking of homeland defense missions and potential scenarios wherein the U.S. Air Force has already achieved air supremacy. 

This may also be in large measure based upon the realization that, while much less expensive than new-build F-15EX, upgraded F-16s can effectively perform any missions requiring 4th-generation technology. 

The F-16 has, for instance, received a number of successful service-life extension enhancements, measures which include enhancements to the structure, airframe and of course weapons and electronics.

U.S. Air Force F-16

F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight

At the same time, the study’s support for the F-16 is also accompanied by a clear calf for a new-build, freshly designed stealthy aircraft able to embrace some of the missions expected for the F-16. The report quotes Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown describing the Multi-Role X (MRX) concept by saying "I want to be able to build something new and different that's not the F-16—that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach.”

New-Start Fighter Competition 

The report says a “new-start fighter program loosely modeled on the original Lightweight Fighter (LWF) and F-117 program may be a good idea. If the service wants recapitalization options other than the F-35A and NGAD for the 2030s, it must begin a new-start fighter competition now.” Part of the thinking, as outlined by the study, is to leverage the long term benefits of building a new platform with “open architecture” and common IP protocol standards such that it has the technological infrastructure to upgrade quickly as needed when new technologies, weapons, computing and avionics emerge.

F-22s

Another legacy fighter which receives even more support than the F-16 in the study is, not surprisingly, the F-22. 

The study expresses a measure of regret that the F-22 acquisition program was truncated prematurely, resulting in a lesser-than-expected number of jets. What seems significant about the study is that, despite the rapid progress and promise of a paradigm-changing 6th-generation aircraft, the superiority of the F-22 as an air dominance fighter is highly cherished as key to the future. This makes a lot of sense when one considers that the F-22 is of course not only a stealthy 5th-generation aircraft believed to outmatch any fighter in the world today in air combat, but the platform continues to receive massive, lethality enhancing weapons, sensors, computing and avionics upgrades. 

F-22

F-22 releases a flair during training

Software upgrades have in recent years greatly hardened the targeting and flight guidance systems of crucial air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X and AIM-120D. Expanding range, resiliency, precision and guidance technology on these weapons might position them more favorably than may have previously been expected should they come up against Russian or Chinese 5th-generation fighters.

"Mass Matters"

Another key tenet espoused by the study can simply be described in terms of Sun Tzu’s famous “mass matters” concept, meaning the Air Force simply needs larger numbers of fighters. This recommendation is, according to the study, firmly grounded in the realization that even some of the most advanced 5th and 6th-generation fighters are likely to be lost or destroyed in a high-end conflict against an extremely advanced adversary such as Russia or China. 

The report uses an interesting term of “operational density” to argue that greater numbers of fighters will be needed in the event of some kind of massive air war.

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“The future force must have additional reserves available to ensure operational density and tempo do not suffer from fighter battle damage and attrition,” the study says.

The report also makes the clear and potentially controversial recommendation that the Air Force needs to fully “cancel” and simply eliminate the new-build F-15EX aircraft.

F-15EX 

The F-15EX is, according to the study, “wrapped in a 50-yr old design that cannot enter contested airspace.”

The argument, as developed in the Mitchell study,maintains that cost and expenditure of resources is too much given the limited mission scope the aircraft would be capable of performing. The study says the F-15EX effort not only builds something of limited or questionable utility but also “damages” the Air Force’s overall modernization effort.

“The Air Force must come to terms with the deleterious impact that acquiring the "new-old" F-15EX will have on the service's ability to transform its fighter force into one that is relevant to peer conflicts,” the study writes. While the F-15EX does introduce a series of advanced technologies and innovations to include major improvements in computing, radar range and sensitivity, avionics sensors and weaponry, it suffers from the indisputable and immutable reality that it is just not “stealthy.” Simply put, the authors of the study believe the F-15EX will have little to no chance of surviving against Russian and Chinese air defenses.

“Stealth is the cost of entry into any modern battlespace,” the study writes.

Chinese HQ-9 and Russian S-500 air defenses are known to operate with much more precise and sensitive radar systems, network with high-speed digital computing and potentially be able to detect some kinds of “stealth” aircraft to a limited degree. While this does not mean these air defense systems could succeed in actually targeting or hitting a 5th-generation stealth fighter, it might mean that a fourth-generation, non-stealthy airframe like the F-15EX would essentially be useless against them.

F-15EX

the Air Force’s first F-15EX—is conducting local pilot familiarization sorties from Eglin prior to the start of trials work. 

As a 4th-generation 1980s airframe, the F-15EX is not as flat, sloped or rounded as a fifth-generation plane, and most likely not built with a mind to seams, bolts and other attachments specific to procedures needed to construct a stealth aircraft. The F-15EX also has a protruding cockpit, much like the original variants, as well as some sharp edges, likely to generate a stronger radar return signal.

Given this known technological circumstance, could the F-15EX be an expensive upgraded aircraft without an actual “mission?” This might sound alarming, as some have suggested the F-15EX might support F-35s by bringing a large payload of weapons to support the fight, however it seems the aircraft might be stuck in a zone of meaninglessness. Why? It may be far too expensive and advanced for certain missions wherein air supremacy is already established, yet ill equipped to actually help the U.S. Air Force achieve air superiority against a technologically sophisticated rival. The F-15EX may exist in something of a liminal zone, meaning it has no suitable mission sufficient to justify the expense.

“New-builds of older designs like the F-15EX will find themselves relegated to limited defensive roles in an era where the Air Force fighter inventory is too small to pursue a tiered force design,” the study writes. “The budget planned for F-15EX should instead be used to increase F-35 production and for the development of a new, stealthy fighter program.”

The new study from the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies recommends rapid and large scale retirement and divestiture of the Air Force’s 4th-generation fighters such as the F-15C/D, A-10C and F-15E.

F-16s To Keep Flying

Interestingly, despite calling for “wholly divesting” those 4th-gen platforms, the Mitchell report recommends that the Air Force “keep” large numbers of the F-16. Why? There may be many reasons for this such as the aircraft’s importance to homeland defense missions and continued relevance for certain potential warfare contingencies. One pressing reason, of course apart from the fact that it costs less to operate an F-16 when compared with 5th generation platforms, may relate to the success of F-16 modernization and its Service Life Extension Plan

Today’s Air Force F-16 dates back as far as the 1970s, a circumstance which raises questions as to how the combat aircraft has sustained its combat relevance and performance into today’s modern and vastly more substantial threat environment. The SLEP, as it is called, improved the upper wing skin and fittings and adjusted the bulkhead and canopy.

Part of the equation relates to an effort to integrate certain F-35 technologies into the F-16 such as an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar (AESA). With AESA, the F-16 incorporates an entirely new ability to find, detect and track enemy threats at much greater ranges. The aim of the SLEP was to extend the flight time of F-16s from roughly six-to-seven thousand flight hours to eight thousand or more flight hours. On top of that, the service’s confidence in the upgrades has led to a plan to have the F-16 fly all the way out to twelve thousand hours. Lockheed AESA developers say the radar can track as many as 20 targets at one time, a scenario which positions the F-16 more effectively for a major-power warfare type of contingency where there will not simply be a few isolated targets such as insurgents but rather a massive, high-tech and extremely sophisticated large-scale Russian or Chinese 5th-generation platforms.

The AESA radar, therefore, is a massive upgrade beyond the F-16s previous mechanically-scanned radar. By virtue of its ability to track multiple targets, the AESA radar can scan in a 360-degree sphere to include horizontal, vertical and diagonal vectors. The F-16 has also in recent years received new cockpit avionics to include moving map displays, video in the cockpit. digital graphics screens and new target tracking systems.

F-16C Fighting Falcon

An F-16C of the Colorado Air National Guard with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, an Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation pod, and a centerline fuel tank

Upgraded F-16s also use a high degree of increased onboard automation to free up pilot focus and workload. By automatically performing a range of important procedural functions independently, a pilot is then freed up to focus more intently on other mission-critical tasks.

Alongside the Air Force SLEP, Lockheed Martin has also been building a new F-16v variant, which continues to inspire allied interest around the globe. The F-16v also uses new computers and software as well as a high-definition cockpit display. The “v” model also adds a new data bus, electronic warfare suite, missile warning sensor and helmet-mounted cueing system.

This upgraded F-16v technical foundation provided the technical starting point for Lockheed Martin’s next-generation F-16 specifically built for India called the F-21. Not only does the F-21 incorporate AESA, but the jet also integrates a high-tech, next-generation targeting system called Infrared Search and Track (IRST) technology. IRST, which is used extensively in F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, is a passive, long-range sensor that searches for and detects infrared emissions. Much like the AESA, the IRST can track multiple targets at once and operate in an electromagnetic warfare environment. As a passive, long-range sensor, able to provide air-to-air targeting, IRST introduces new combat variables for the F-16.

While all of these innovations and possibilities for more upgrades to the U.S. F-16 might not enable an F-16 to rival a Russian or Chinese 5th-generation stealth fighter, they may explain why Mitchell recommends holding on to the F-16.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President