by DAVID AXE
The general in charge of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command says he doesn’t know what the flying branch’s after-next jet fighter will look like. But he does know the Air Force will need a so-called “sixth-generation” fighter beginning around 2030, just as the planned purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is winding down.
“There will have to be a sixth generation” of jet fighters,” Gen. Mike Hostage, a former F-15 pilot, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on Friday. Whatever form it takes, the new warplane must incorporate what Hostage called “game-changing capability.”
“We don’t yet know what it is but we’re out there looking carefully,” Hostage added. However, the general offered some clues about the broad direction of warplane development.
The third generation of jet fighters from the Vietnam era were meant to double as strategic bombers carrying tactical nuclear weapons, Hostage said. They flew high and fast but weren’t very maneuverable.
By contrast, the fourth generation of fighters from the 1970s and ’80s — the F-15 and F-16 — were designed from the outset as “maneuvering platforms” optimized for close-range air combat. They featured excellent agility and visibility and the first reliable air-to-air weapons.
The way Hostage described it, improving air defenses forced fighter designers to add radar stealth when they invented the fifth generation of fighters, including the F-22 and F-35. But they also retained all the qualities of fourth-gen jets. This layering of capabilities resulted in aircraft that were extremely expensive to design, produce and maintain. “It will always be more expensive to maintain a stealth airplane,” Hostage said.
That expense forced the Pentagon to cut F-22 purchases to just 187 operational airframes — a “pitifully small number,” Hostage said. “Quantity does have to be part of the mix.”
To that end, the Air Force plans to buy 1,763 F-35s. A few dozen are already in production as the Lockheed Martin-made fighter continues development through 2016. The Air Force intends to keep hundreds of F-15s and F-16s in service alongside the F-22s and the growing fleet of F-35s. “I need the F-35 to add a fifth-generation layer to make the fourth-generation force effective out to 2030,” Hostage said.
That’s when the Air Force should begin to acquire the sixth-generation plane, whatever it is. If recent history is any guide, the sixth generation will retain the qualities of the fourth and fifth generations — that is, agility and stealth — while adding some new, revolutionary quality.
Hostage did not say what that might be, but other officials have offered up ideas. Last year Air Force chief scientist Mark Maybury said that future U.S. warplanes should replace hydraulic components with electrical ones, producing a kind of “more-electric aircraft” that’s more reliable, stealthy in the infrared spectrum and able to support energy weapons such as lasers or microwaves.
Neither Maybury nor Hostage has speculated as to how the Pentagon will be able to afford a brand-new fighter.
One thing is clear. Unmanned aircraft are not yet able to replace manned planes — and might not be for a long time, Hostage said.
“A lot of people have grown enamored of unmanned systems,” Hostage said. “They can go and do things in places manned airplanes can’t.” But, he added, “they don’t have the awareness that a manned plane would have.”
The human brain is still the best computer. As long as that holds true, the fighter after next will, at the very least, still be a manned plane.