CNO Greenert and RAdm. Winter, speaking at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo, have provided a glimpse at the desired characteristics of the next generation fighter (1).
“Greenert said it must have manned and unmanned capabilities and carry a spectrum of weapons. Stealth and speed are not top priorities; in fact, ‘stealth may be overrated,’ he said.”
“The fighter must have full spectrum dominance, autonomous sensor and payload integration and next-generation advanced propulsion, Winter [Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's new chief of naval research] said. What is that? ‘We will let you know when we get it,’ he said."
That’s absolutely fascinating. So, here’s the list of requirements, as they described them.
- Manned and unmanned
- Full spectrum dominance
- Autonomous sensor and payload integration
- Next-generation advanced propulsion
- Speed and stealth
Optionally Manned. Frankly, I don’t get this one. The concept of an unmanned aircraft is that it will be cheaper (that’s a highly debatable assumption that I think is false), somewhat simpler, and dedicated to long endurance or very high risk missions. Making an aircraft that is optionally manned guarantees the full cost of a manned aircraft plus the added cost of the unmanned requirements (probably not much of an incremental cost, to be fair).
While the ability to take the pilot out of the cockpit for extremely hazardous missions would be nice in theory, I really can’t see risking our absolute top of the line next generation fighter on the kind of suicidal missions that would warrant unmanned aircraft. That’s what a simpler, cheaper, more expendable unmanned aircraft would be for.
Full Spectrum Dominance. I assume full spectrum dominance refers to electronic warfare (EW) and represents a desire to move away from dedicated EW aircraft such as the Prowler/Growler and towards each aircraft providing its own EW support. In concept, this is wonderful. It addresses two issues related to dedicated EW aircraft:
Availability – there are very few EW aircraft in the inventory and there never seem to be enough when needed and where needed. If EW is integrated into the fighter, we will have an unlimited number of EW aircraft (well, limited to the number of fighter aircraft) and they will always be on scene whenever a fighter is on scene.
Cost Effectiveness – EW aircraft are not only expensive in their own right but each EW aircraft represents one less fighter from a zero-sum budget perspective. Combining the EW function with the fighter function would be highly cost effective. Essentially, the EW electronics are the only thing that need to be paid for – the airframe is free in the sense that fighter airframe will exist anyway. One airframe, two functions – that’s a great concept.
I also assume that full spectrum dominance goes beyond the traditional electronic warfare realm and includes cyber and communications warfare capability as well as intel and surveillance functions. A full spectrum aircraft will be a mini-AWACS, mini-Reaper, mini-JSTARS, and, well, mini-everything.
Autonomous Sensor and Payload Integration. I’m not quite sure what this refers to. I assume it encompasses the F-35 360 degree sensor fusion concept as a baseline. I further assume it goes well beyond that to include the ability to interface with any sensor on any platform, anywhere, and to seamlessly interface those sensors with the aircraft’s weapons.
I also assume the autonomous portion of this requirement refers to the stated desire for an optionally manned aircraft. When the aircraft is operating in unmanned mode, the control software will be able to select and use any appropriate sensor to best utilize any available weapon.
Advanced Propulsion. I really have no idea what this is referring to. My best guess is that it involves the Air Force’s adaptive jet engine technology efforts which are an attempt to produce a single engine that can operate in multiple modes such as high speed, high efficiency, or high endurance. Wouldn’t it be great to have a single engine that can provide enormous range or high fuel efficiency or high speed, as desired?
Speed and Stealth. I find it fascinating that Greenert specifically addresses speed and stealth in the negative, in a sense. It’s not surprising given his previous statements about stealth but to see it “codified” as a lesser requirement is, frankly, stunning given our obsession with stealth over the last few decades and the incredibly high value placed on the F-35’s stealth as the means to allow it to utilize its other magic capabilities.
OK, we’ve looked at the positives but what about the realities?
All of these capabilities are, essentially, non-existent. We’ve seen what happens when we commit to production of non-existent technology – we get the LCS and F-35. The lesson that the Navy should have learned is to pursue non-existent technologies as research projects, not as production programs. If we repeat the mistakes of concurrent research and production we’ll wind up with a next generation fighter whose costs and delays will dwarf those of the F-35 or LCS. It greatly troubles me that no one is discussing an interim, achievable, capable fighter to fill the gap until the next generation technologies are fully developed and ready for production. We appear to be intent on repeating the F-35 and LCS fiascos. I see another too-big-to-fail, no-other-option, fantasy aircraft program in the making.
Consider the desire to cram so many capabilities into a single airframe. Expecting a fighter to be a fully functioning EW aircraft is analogous to wanting every infantryman to be his own artillery battery. It’s a great concept but it’s just not practical with any technology we have or can foresee. Further, unless the EW functions are completely automated, it’s asking too much of a single pilot to be an expert at air-to-air combat and an expert at EW, to say nothing of having to attempt to split time and attention in the middle of combat.
Finally, consider the cost of this aircraft. Those fantasy technologies aren’t going to come cheaply, if at all. We’re looking at a half a billion dollars per aircraft in today’s dollars. What that means is that the numbers procured will be very small. The last aircraft that cost that kind of money was truncated at around 20 units. We’ve harped on this point repeatedly. Numbers matter. The logical extension of the path we’re on has us heading towards airwings consisting of one aircraft. This path is a mistake.
To sum up, there are some potentially good concepts associated with this next generation fighter but it depends almost exclusively on non-existent technology. If we approach this as a research effort while fielding interim, capable aircraft, we’ll do fine. If we turn this into another all-or-nothing production program before any of the technology is proven, we’ll produce yet another disaster. It really is that simple.
(1) Navy Times, "CNO wants more high-tech assets, delivered quickly", Lance M. Bacon,