Air Force Leader Wants More Aggressive Push for ‘Sixth-Gen’ Capabilities

By Jon Harper
Pilots with the 33rd Fighter Wing prepare to take off during exercise Northern Lightning.

The Air Force needs to more aggressively pursue a next-generation platform capable of penetrating deep into hostile airspace, the head of Air Combat Command said Feb. 24.

The primary focus now is on ramping up production of the F-35A joint strike fighter, a fifth-generation aircraft with stealth features and cutting-edge sensors. But the Air Force is already thinking about acquiring a sixth-generation “penetrating counter-air” capability, or PCA, that would have longer range and greater ability to outmatch the most sophisticated enemy air defense systems.

Service leaders aim to have this new technology in the fleet in the 2030s. “We should try to accelerate that left if at all possible,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said at a breakfast with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force should procure more joint strike fighters than planned over the next five years and then pivot to a new system, he said.

“What I believe will happen is if we can increase the buy rate and continue to recapitalize our force with F-35s in the near term … then we can in the ‘20s look at that PCA,” he added. “We’ll be able to make a decision at that point where we’ll transition from [buying] more F-35s to a PCA, or we’ll transition to a different instantiation of the F-35” that is more advanced than the latest version.

The Air Force also needs a “penetrating electronic attack capability” that could potentially accompany the counter-air platform into enemy airspace, he said.

A sixth-generation system or family of systems might be unmanned and could be equipped with autonomous capabilities, he noted.

“There are things you can do with a penetrating platform that can probably use some unmanned [technology] … and would be either autonomous or semi-autonomous,” Carlisle said. “We’re looking at different ways to do that. But I do believe that there is some kind of platform that’s going to have to get an electronic [warfare] capability into the battlespace.”

The Air Force also needs to more rapidly acquire next-generation weapons for its newest aircraft, he said.

“We’re still flying with fourth-generation weapons on a fifth-generation platform,” he said. For F-22s, F-35s and a future penetrating counter-air system “we need weapons that are fifth- and sixth-gen that go with that.”

U.S. warplanes are not the only assets that are at risk from enemy air defenses, he noted. The weapons that they launch could also be destroyed.

“Not only does the airplane have to get into the theater to get to a range to deliver a weapon, but the weapon has to get to its target,” Carlisle said. “When you’re using fourth-generation weapons, the ability of the adversary to counter those weapons through a variety of means” is enhanced, he added. “You have to get something that can actually reach the target.”

The Air Force also is fleshing out the concept of a “survivable strike weapon” and related technologies to meet future needs, he said. Whether they would by hypersonic and rely on speed to outpace enemy air defenses, or rely on stealth to avoid detection, has yet to be determined, he told reporters.

The F-35 program has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. Carlisle was asked if he was concerned that the headline-grabbing setbacks associated with the joint strike fighter would make lawmakers wary of funding an expensive sixth-generation system or family of systems in the next decade.

“I’m hoping that we the Air Force, we the Department of Defense, do a good enough job of spending time with Congress and talking to them about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it and staying engaged at the maximum level possible so that we can prevent that from happening,” he said.

One of the biggest problems with the F-35 program was the “concurrency” of the engineering and manufacturing development phase and the production phase, he noted. In hindsight, pursuing that acquisition path was probably a mistake, he suggested.

“We thought … we could do EMD ... at the same time we’re producing airplanes,” Carlisle said. “That caused some of the problems that we had to go back and fix.”

The Air Force will take lessons learned from the F-35, F-22 and B-21 Raider programs and apply them to the penetrating counter-air project, he added.


Topics: Air Force News, Air Power

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