|By Graham Warwick
|Where is the next combat aircraft? Domestic and export orders will keep U.S. and European production lines running through the middle of the decade. But development work is diminishing and design teams dissipating, and the gap between new programs stretches out.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy have begun requirements definition and technology development for “sixth-generation” air dominance aircraft, notionally aimed at service entry in 2025-30. But despite Russia, and now China, unveiling F-22-class stealth fighters, U.S. budget pressures are likely rule out any significant funding before 2015.
Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 entered flight testing in December 2009 and is targeted for entry into service around 2015. The Chengdu J-20 made its first flight on Jan. 11 and China has talked of a fighter becoming operational in 2017-19, so it is clear that U.S. stealth aircraft could face peer threats by 2020.
But even if the U.S. launches a next-generation fighter program soon after 2015, the 15-year spans from flying competitive prototypes to initial operational capability for both the F-22 and F-35 make a 2030 in-service date look doubtful.
Meanwhile, F-22 production is wrapping up and while the F-15E and F/A-18E/F (and possibly F-16) lines will continue through 2015 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program still plans production beyond 2030, the growing issue for industry is the lack of design and development work. The only near-term prospect is the family of long-range strike systems the U.S. Air Force is looking at to replace its planned next-generation bomber program, which was suspended in 2009. While the system is likely to include new strike weapons for existing platforms, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates this month said the Air Force will invest in a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber.
Funding to begin the program is expected in the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2012 budget request, to be unveiled in February. Gates says the aircraft, which will have the option of being remotely piloted, will be designed and developed using proven technologies to ensure it can be delivered on schedule and in the quantity required.
Since the original next-generation bomber plan was shelved, the long-range strike program has been undergoing an intensive cost scrub within the Pentagon. This critical look at the design requirements driving cost is similar to the process that is en route to reducing the price tag on the Navy’s SSBN(X) next-generation ballistic missile by 35% from initial estimates.
The result could be a platform optimized for extremely low observability, potentially with optionally manned capability, but using technology from aircraft like the F-35 where it makes sense and saves money. This could include avionics and engines. For industry, that could mean a scaled-back design and development effort compared to previous bomber programs.
Aside from a new bomber, potential platform design and development opportunities are limited to possible next-generation unmanned aircraft, including the Air Force’s planned MQ-X Predator/Reaper replacement and a carrier-based UAV for the Navy. The scope and timing of these programs is far from clear, but more detail may come with the 2012 budget request.