6th Generation Stealth Surprises: What Comes After the F‑22 and F‑35?

 In China, GDI, Russia, Defense, Air

Key Point: The planes of the future will be designed around longer range.

The sce­nario goes like this: In 2030, Russia invades the Baltic States. As the U.S. sends forces to Europe, China seizes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to seize dis­put­ed islands in the South China Sea. American air­pow­er flies to the rescue, only to dis­cov­er that sophis­ti­cat­ed Russian and Chinese fight­ers and anti-air­craft defens­es have ren­dered the skies too deadly for older American planes to con­duct mis­sions.

If this sce­nario were to come to pass, cur­rent U.S. air power would be unable to cope. Too many air­craft are old, have too small a range and pay­load, and can’t oper­ate in tough air defense envi­ron­ments. One solu­tion? Develop a sixth-gen­er­a­tion stealth air­craft that essen­tial­ly com­bines the air combat capa­bil­i­ty of an F‑22 fight­er with the elec­tron­ic attack capa­bil­i­ty of an EA-18G Growler jam­ming air­craft.

This was the con­clu­sion from a series of wargames con­duct­ed by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. Less a pre­dic­tion of the future and more a plan­ning con­struct to deter­mine what the U.S. Air Force will need twenty years from now, the Congressionally-man­dat­ed report and its under­ly­ing wargames looked at what kind of capa­bil­i­ties are needed for a two-front war in Europe and the Pacific.

To make U.S. air­pow­er effec­tive, the wargame play­ers wanted what CSBA called a Penetrating Counter-Air/Penetrating Electronic Attack (PCA/PC‑E) air­craft. “The Air Force should devel­op and pro­cure a PCA/P‑EA to con­duct coun­terair, elec­tron­ic attack, and other mis­sions to defeat Russian and Chinese air­borne and sur­face access denial sys­tems,” the report said. “A PCA/P‑EA air­craft should also have enough range, pos­si­bly 1,500 nau­ti­cal miles or more, to allow inte­gra­tion of its oper­a­tions with other long-range pen­e­tra­tors.”

The PCA would be both body­guard and sheep­dog, pro­tect­ing older air­craft from enemy fight­ers and anti-air­craft defens­es as they pen­e­trate heav­i­ly defend­ed air­space. However, Gunzinger empha­sized that the PCA was not a panacea, but rather one com­po­nent of a solu­tion. “This includes weapons, unmanned sys­tems, expend­able decoys, it’s a family of capa­bil­i­ties,” he said.

The PCA would also have an unmanned coun­ter­part in the form of the MQ‑X, a hypo­thet­i­cal unmanned combat air vehi­cle (UCAV) that could pen­e­trate dan­ger­ous skies to con­duct coun­terair, elec­tron­ic attack and strike. Indeed, Gunzinger noted that the study made no rec­om­men­da­tion as to whether the PCA itself should be manned or unmanned. The study also called for pen­e­trat­ing sur­veil­lance drones, or P‑ISR as well as more sur­viv­able air tankers.

CSBA sees the keys to suc­cess­ful future air­pow­er as being pen­e­tra­tion and sur­viv­abil­i­ty. If an air­craft can’t pen­e­trate a bar­ri­er of enemy inter­cep­tors and sur­face-to-air mis­siles, then it cannot accom­plish its mis­sion. “To have the degree of free­dom to oper­ate in the bat­tle­space is going to be so impor­tant,” Gunzinger empha­sized.

But pen­e­tra­tion and sur­viv­abil­i­ty are more than mat­ters of fight­ers and flak. A U.S. air­craft that doesn’t have an air­base within range of the target, or even an air­base to oper­ate from, is use­less. The wargame par­tic­i­pants wanted “longer range, larger pay­load sys­tems. Because bases locat­ed close to or in future threat envi­ron­ments, such as Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific, they will prob­a­bly be under attack or at very high risk of attack,” Gunzinger said.

“Attrition on the ground might be much higher than in the air,” he added.

That means American planes will be oper­at­ing from more dis­tant bases, and the greater dis­tances mean fewer sor­ties. Which places a pre­mi­um on long-range air­craft that can carry a heavy pay­load per sortie.

“They can’t just nibble around the edges and launch weapons over long ranges,” said Gunzinger. “But actu­al­ly pen­e­trate to deliv­er a vari­ety of weapons that they can carry in large num­bers.”

Michael Peck is a con­tribut­ing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This piece was orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured in May 2019 and is being repub­lished due to read­er’s inter­est.

Media: Reuters

Source: National Interest

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