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The U.S. Air Force's next fighter could be a stealthy drone


F-22 Raptors from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, fly over Alaska May 26, 2010. | U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Four years after the 195th and final F-22 Raptor stealth fighter rolled out of Lockheed Martin's factory in Marietta, Georgia, the U.S. Air Force still hasn't committed to developing a new manned air-superiority fighter.

But the world's leading air arm is proposing to develop some kind of new aircraft to complement, and perhaps replace, the F-22 on the most dangerous air dominance missions in heavily defended territory.

Noting that enemy air defenses are developing faster than the Air Force can counter them, the flying branch's "Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan,"published in May, warns that "the Air Force's projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning."

"Developing and delivering air superiority for the highly contested environment in 2030 requires a multi-domain focus on capabilities and capacity," the flight plan notes. To that end, it calls for the Air Force to begin developing, as early as 2017, a new "penetrating counterair" system, or PCA.

"Capability development efforts for PCA will focus on maximizing tradeoffs between range, payload, survivability, lethality, affordability, and supportability," the flight plan explains.

Studiously avoiding specificity with regard to the PCA, the plan leaves open the possibility that the new penetrating counterair system could be manned or unmanned. In any event, the PCA will be part of a network of systems.

"While PCA capability will certainly have a role in targeting and engaging, it also has a significant role as a node in the network, providing data from its penetrating sensors to enable employment using either stand-off or stand-in weapons," the plan explains.

"The penetrating capabilities of PCA will allow the stand-in application of kinetic and non-kinetic effects from the air domain." In other words, the PCA could be a highly stealthy manned fighter or drone whose main job is find targets for other systems to attack.

Not coincidentally, the Pentagon has studied modifying existing large aircraft — most likely B-52 and B-1 bombers — to serve as "arsenal planes," carrying large numbers of long-range munitions and firing them, from safe distance, at targets designated by stealthy aircraft flying much closer to enemy territory.

A Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. | Photo by Rob Shenk

Along the same lines, the U.S. military is developing a wide range of new munitions, including hypersonic rockets, lasers and microwave weapons. It's possible to imagine that, around 2030, the Air Force will deploy teams of systems to do the same job the F-22 does today. A team could include a stealthy drone communicating with a distant B-1 arsenal plane hauling a load of hypersonic missiles.

Of course, it's also possible that the penetrating counterair system could be an existing fighter. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter possesses some air-to-air capability plus a higher degree of stealth than do most planes.

But even the Air Force admits that the F-35 isn't a suitable replacement for the F-22. "It's not that it can't do it, it's just that it wasn't designed to be a maneuvering airplane," Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said in late 2015.

More likely, today's F-22s could give way to … tomorrow's F-22s. Seven years after then-defense secretary Robert Gates cancelled F-22 production, the U.S. defense establishment has concluded that 195 F-22s is not enough.

The U.S. Congress has pressured the Air Force to at least consider plans for more F-22s. And Air Force leaders are warming up to the idea, despite the high cost. The RAND Corporation, a California think-tank, estimated that 75 new F-22s would cost $19 billion in 2016 dollars. Even so, an F-22 restart is "not a crazy idea," Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said in May.

Fortunately, the Pentagon had the foresight to order Lockheed to preserve the F-22's tooling and document production processes. More problematic is the limited networking capability of the current F-22 design. A Raptor's datalink is compatible only with other Raptors, complicating the F-22's participation in a network of systems. If a Raptor can't talk to other aircraft, it certainly can't designate targets for them.

But again, there are solutions in the works. The U.S. government's tiny fleet of Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft — a mix of Global Hawk drones, business jets and old B-57 bombers — carry radio gateways that can "translate" datalinks in order to link up disparate aircraft.

More elegantly, Boeing has developed a scab-on datalink system called Talon HATE that, installed on an F-15, allows the older fighter to securely exchange data with an F-22. Talon HATE is still in testing, but could find its way to the frontline F-15 fleet in coming years.

It's not clear whether the Air Force's top leadership — to say nothing of Congress and the White House — will follow the air-superiority flight plan's recommendation and begin development of a penetrating counterair system in the next year or so. But if the stars align, the Air Force could soon, however belatedly, have a replacement for the F-22.

And it might even be a version of the F-22.

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