The declaration made by Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, at the USAF’s Air Symposium 2020 that ‘the fighter jet era has passed’ was one that drew incredulity from military leaders and industry alike.
Even though his message does not tally with defence forecasting trends and looks out of step with a wider consensus that fighter jets will remain central to ISR, CAS, QRA, SEAD and strike operations for decades to come, it does at least add to the debate around how manned and unmanned aircraft numbers will be balanced in the future – a problem being grappled with by air forces of all descriptions. Musk’s point was really that the balance tipping in favour of drones and unmanned platforms compared to manned aircraft is only a matter of time.
Additionally, the amount of funding being allocated to tier-one aircraft manufacturers and supply chain partners to experiment and advance newer air power concepts leaves little doubt that major powers are intent on claiming for themselves critical strategic advantages over their adversaries.
What that ultimately means in the case of countries like the US and the UK is that the end of an era of COIN and a shift towards maintaining peace in Asia-Pacific or facing down Chinese and Russian belligerence has led to recognition that freedom of manoeuvre for fighter jets is no longer guaranteed. Lower-cost platforms are required to generate combat mass and bridge capability gaps left by funding cuts.
‘The US DoD has been talking about making this strategic pivot [focusing on China and Russia] for more than a decade, but it looks like we’re hitting a point now where it may really happen, especially given President Biden’s announcement of taking all US forces out of Afghanistan,’ said Todd Harrison, director of defence budget analysis and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
‘The types of capabilities that you need, and the operational concepts required to face countries like China, are very different than what we’ve been doing operating in a largely permissive environment, in Afghanistan.’
Other leading factors driving change currently in the US are a ‘flat’ top-line defence budget and ‘internal cost growth’ or military costs growing faster than inflation, according to Harrison.
Figures published by the US Office of Management and Budget on 9 April 2021 included a FY2022 budget request by the Biden administration of $715 billion for the DoD, an increase of just 1.6% compared to ‘enacted’ defence spending of $703.7 billion in FY2021.
Of the flagship efforts committed to by the US DoD and aimed directly at strengthening future air power capabilities, Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) stands out from the pack, not least because it represents a push towards developing a sixth-generation fighter and ‘family of systems’ that can offer interoperability to defeat or counter a wide spectrum of air, land or sea-based threats.
‘[US] defence budget pressures are still going to be strong, so manned-unmanned teaming, greater use of unmanned vehicles will definitely trend [in the future] and the [DoD] will continue to work on a sixth-generation fighter, but I really question its affordability,’ said Brad Curran, industry analyst for aerospace and defence at Frost & Sullivan.
‘They are going to try and use more modern, digital manufacturing and bring in commercial companies, rather than the three US fighter aircraft manufacturers, but I think if it [NGAD] comes about [reaches production], it will be with small numbers and optionally manned.’
One of the most striking ideas to be included as part of NGAD plans is a move towards procuring small quantities of newly designed, shorter-life combat jets every five to eight years, leaving industry to compete for production contracts at more regular intervals compared to traditional acquisitions.
That way of thinking has, however, been roundly criticised by defence analysts who suggest that maintenance costs will rise significantly and curtail or complicate future export opportunities.
‘The long-term sustainability of buying small fleets of different aircraft types is highly questionable and I think it’s not something folks in Congress have bought into,’ said Harrison. ‘I think senior leaders in the new [Biden] administration may want to re-examine some of NGAD’s underlying assumptions. That may ultimately slow the programme down or even cause re-baselining.’
Such an assessment is a far cry from the grand ambitions spoken of by Will Roper, a former USAF acquisition executive who had consistently championed the advantages of digital aircraft development not only for NGAD but the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk trainer, which has already benefitted from an e-series approach, in which digital engineering techniques are used as a blueprint for physical aircraft production.
‘The ability to build an aeroplane, the first time, as if you have already built 100 is game-changing… If that doesn’t seem like it opens up a paradigm, I promise you, it does,’ he said at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference in 2020. ‘[It means] the [physical aircraft] learning curve is dead, integration is dead, flying before you buy is dead, if we choose it.’
Before his departure from the USAF in January 2021, Roper also revealed that an NGAD full-scale demonstrator had undertaken flight tests, saying that ‘records have been broken’. However, because the effort is classified, additional details about it have not been forthcoming, including which manufacturer built the demonstrator. When asked, the USAF declined to comment on NGAD developments.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works’ involvement in new, high-end or classified efforts has led to speculation that it manufactured the demonstrator, but that has not been publicly confirmed. Besides Skunk Works, Boeing’s Phantom Works, which also leads on developing advanced defence concepts, certainly fits the bill for designing NGAD. Again, nothing has been disclosed officially.
Leaving this manufacturing mystery to one side, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has pointed out that Roper’s admission was a surprise, mainly because NGAD funding was only released to the USAF two years earlier.
‘DoD had mentioned an interest in building a new “X-plane” prototype as far back as 2014, but it is not clear whether this led to the NGAD demonstrator,’ CRS added in an October 2020 NGAD report.
The same report notes that ‘likely candidates’ of NGAD’s five major technologies are new forms of stealth and advanced weapons like directed-energy types and thermal management – all of which complement propulsion, the one technology known to be under assessment.
While NGAD has been selected as an F-22 replacement for the USAF, the USN is also looking to use it as the basis of an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement effort. Specifically, the service wants a next-generation fighter, either manned or unmanned and dubbed F/A-XX, to be its NGAD ‘centrepiece’, according to RADM Gregory Harris, director of air warfare at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
‘We truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft. We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects of manned and unmanned teaming into that,’ said Harris at a 30 March virtual Navy League event. ‘Whether that [be what] we euphemistically refer to as “our little buddy” – an adjunct air-to-air platform, an adjunct EW platform… it could be an adjunct, advanced early warning platform.’
He also explained that the navy wants to ‘drive toward’ an air wing with a 40/60 unmanned-manned split, before adding a composition of 60/40 in favour of unmanned vehicles would happen long term.
‘A lot of that is going to depend on the success we see with the MQ-25 Stingray and our ability to truly learn to operate around the aircraft carrier and safely execute [unmanned systems] both on the flight deck and airborne,’ he explained.
Currently undergoing testing by Boeing, the MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueller has been designed to extend the combat range of USN’s Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers and F-35C jets, and it is due to achieve IOC in 2024.
Under current plans, the total effort will see Boeing produce seven test aircraft and an additional 69 for operational purposes. Low-rate MQ-25 production has also been scheduled for February 2023.
Boeing’s test asset – designated T1 – flew for over six hours and at 30,000ft in March 2021, new milestones for the programme, according to the company. ‘Next up for T1 is the testing of the aerial refuelling hose and drogue, to include wake surveys, followed by receiver flights with an F/A-18 Super Hornet,’ it said in a statement announcing the test developments.
From a development perspective, the theme of model-based engineering again crops up with the MQ-25. Digital processes have already been used to predict every movement of the physical aircraft, meaning that the manufacturer should be in a strong position not only to fly T1 consistently while minimising one-off or unexpected performance issues but build future production aircraft that leverage all of the design intricacies, trends associated with data capture from powerful algorithms and specialised software, leaving little to risk.
‘Every flight of T1 generates valuable data that helps validate the models for greater reliance and confidence that MQ-25 will deliver on the two key performance parameters – mission tanking and carrier suitability,’ said Dave Bujold, MQ-25 programme director at Boeing.
‘That same model-based approach informs the production process, where model-based instructions and input help manufacturing teams ensure they know exactly how components will come together, what the best production flow is and what tools are necessary to get the job done – all before they set foot on the factory floor.
‘Additionally, the same model-based approach will be used for sustainment planning and future growth without needing access to the actual aircraft, which saves valuable time and resources.’
The promise offered by a model-based engineering approach is tempered, however, by a programme schedule that could see the MQ-25’s development phase extended by three years, an IOC delay and a cost increase, officials told the Government Accountability Office.
The watchdog included the revelations in its Defense Acquisitions Annual Assessment report, which was published in June 2020, saying that the navy ‘faces limited flexibility to install MQ-25 control centres on aircraft carriers’, and if the installation windows are missed, the three-year development delay would then occur.
Defense News has reported that the navy considers such a possibility to be ‘remote’, and Breaking Defense has similarly reported that ‘navy officials’ have confirmed that a first of two USS Carl Vinson upgrades – linked to supporting MQ-25 planning – ‘remains on track’. Both USS Carl Vinson and USS George HW Bush carriers are due to complete MQ-25 aircraft control station integration.
Economics of engagement
Outside of unmanned refuelling developments, the US has a variety of technological maturation or experimental test efforts that push beyond existing concepts of controlling airspace, many of which revolve around or rely on low-cost and/or reusable UAVs. Under that bracket sit items like the USAF’s Skyborg programme and DARPA’s LongShot.
‘Owing to stand-off range, you’re not going to be flying a $100 million aircraft into danger,’ said Mike Blades, VP aerospace, defence and security, Americas, at Frost & Sullivan. ‘Instead, you’re going to fly a $1.5 million drone with another drone underneath it, costing a couple of hundred thousand dollars so that if it gets wiped out, you don’t care.’
Blades was referring specifically to a 26 March test demonstration conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and held at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, that saw the Kratos-manufactured XQ-58A Valkyrie launch an Area-I ALTIUS-600 sUAS from its internal weapons bay, a first for Kratos.
‘Kratos, Area-I and AFRL designed and fabricated the sUAS carriage and developed software to enable release,’ AFRL said in a 5 April statement. ‘After the successful release of the sUAS, the XQ-58A completed additional test points to expand its demonstrated operating envelope.’
One flight test hardly stands up as a reliable indicator of how well weapons bay-released drones would fare in highly contested environments or succeed against enemy air defences, but at a strategic level that does not really appear to be the point, or a priority.
Being able to hold on to higher-valued assets, like fighter jets, at the expense of losing a low-cost drone clearly sits at the forefront of decision-makers’ minds. Additionally, a mission can still continue if a UAV is shot down or has to return to base, but a combat jet shootdown verges on an act of war, for which a retaliatory price usually has to be paid.
Even so, the focus on newer air power concepts and the potential future operational advantages linked to low-cost UAVs should not be overestimated because they are not guaranteed to reach production. ‘These programmes look promising, but the challenge for them is to transition from technology development and prototyping to become programmes of record,’ Harrison explained. ‘The DoD’s track record on that, transitioning the “valley of death”, is not good.’
Despite that reality, Skyborg has been progressing well with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, set to begin ‘experimentation events’ in July 2021, following air vehicle deliveries from Boeing (Airpower Teaming System), General Atomics (Avenger RPA) and Kratos (XQ-58A Valkyrie).
The plans follow on from the three industry competitors each receiving two-year Skyborg contracts in December 2020. An early operational capability prototype is planned for fielding by the end of 2023.
At its core, Skyborg will leverage and assess AI technologies, potentially involving algorithms designed to control flight and look at how the air vehicles under consideration can keep up with combat jets. Open architecture standards and modular payloads will also be prioritised.
‘During this effort, AFRL will prototype a suite of autonomy and unmanned system technologies equipped with capabilities that can support a range of Air Force missions,’ AFRL states on its website.
Complementing Skyborg is DARPA’s LongShot, which has been set up to demonstrate air-launched UAVs capable of launching AAMs. For future operations, this would primarily mean strike operations could be left to an armed UAV, once launched from a fighter jet, having been internally stored or flown off the jet’s external hardpoint.
‘A key technical challenge of the programme is maintaining vehicle control due to the significant shifts in the centre of gravity and ejection forces associated with missile launches from a vehicle of this size,’ said a DARPA spokesperson in a statement. Industry contractors are to be assessed against flight performance, operational capabilities, cost-effectiveness and design maturity, with prototype demonstrations planned for 2024, the spokesperson also confirmed.
In February 2021, DARPA announced that General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman had been awarded LongShot Phase I contracts, requiring each company to put forward preliminary aircraft designs. When asked, the three companies declined to comment on LongShot developments though.
The various attempts on behalf of the US DoD to rethink UAV use cases, further explore manned-unmanned teaming and put faith in AI technologies looks certain to change the face of air power long term.
These developments would also suggest that while fighter jets will continue to be indispensable assets, valued not just for their lethality but deterrence qualities, their high costs are taking a toll on budgets, leading to an obvious trend where combat mass, sooner rather than later, will tilt towards greater dependence on supplementing fighters with new means of conducting strike and ISR missions, particularly in highly contested environments, where attritable UAVs are likely to emerge in high numbers.
How quickly such a trend emerges of course largely depends on the success of efforts like NGAD, Skyborg and LongShot, as well as geopolitical developments.