via War On The Rocks
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.Then this.
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.Story here.
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 undergoingmodernization 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.