Air Force wants next generation fighter to be operational by 2025-2029

In January, 2017, the US Air Force the service will begin an 18-month analysis of alternatives that will help determine the PCA (Penetrating Counter Air) platform by examining the ability to reach supersonic speeds in different configurations while maintaining a stealth signature and manoeuvrability. The USAF Scientific Advisory Board announced 2017 studies which will focus on PCA, nuclear recapitalisation programmes and an assessment of the service’s test and evaluation facilities.

The advisory board’s work will the 18 month next generation fighter effort, examining documents from the USAF’s air superiority enterprise capability collaboration team (ECCT) and providing a technology roadmap to meet the PCA’s 2030 timeline.

While some have called PCA the air force’s next-generation fighter, top USAF officials have eschewed the term “sixth generation,” says Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, team lead for the air force’s 2030 air superiority study. The Air Force has all but settled on a fighter designation.

Although the USAF is struggling with a smaller fleet of F-22s, upgrades on the the Raptor and the block 4 upgrade on the F-35 push the need for replacement fighters several years out. Grynkewich does not foresee air-to-ground as PCA’s primary role, indicating the service is not billing the platform as an F-15E or F-35 replacement.

The Air Force will think outside the box about what the definition of a fighter might be. In the classic sense, a fighter is a short-range jet capable of flying at 9Gs, with a single seat, he says. The ECCT is emphasizing range and payload, but the platform may not require 9Gs. Unlike most fighters, the PCA will not be short-range, but what space the aircraft will fit into will depend on cost and how the platform fits into the USAF’s tanker fleet. The air force also wants a stealthy signature for survivability, but also a speedy, manoeuvrable platform, he says.

While there’s no consensus yet on whether PCA should be unmanned, an enemy could disrupt a remotely piloted aircraft’s datalink. An autonomous solution could fare better in an A2AD environment, though a machine’s ability to make good air combat decisions has not been proved in flight yet and ethical questions loom over whether an autonomous system should take on a kill mission, Grynkewich says.

The Air Force is targeting initial operational capability for PCA around the mid to late-2020s. The programme will be both technology and budget driven.

SOURCES – FlightGlobal