Why Stealthy "Penetrating" Fighters Are Needed For Major War With China, Russia
Video: Army Research Lab Scientist Describes Human Brain as Sensor Connecting With AI
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) A major U.S. air attack in the Pacific would need to pursue thousands of “aim points” every day and sustain an ability to “penetrate” and therefore operate over hostile territory over the period of an airwar campaign, a reality now leading many senior Air Force experts and former leaders to call for much greater numbers of stealthy attack aircraft.
It is a call for more 5th Gen attack platforms, something many argue presents an urgent need given the reasonably small number of 186 F-22s and a small but growing fleet of F-35s. There is, however, an abundance of aging 4th-Generation aircraft, which many feel is simply insufficient to handle a modern threat environment filled with fast-emerging new operational demands.
“We need more penetrating aircraft that can revisit targets. You can’t avoid the threat by using stand-off. You need to be able to handle the target demand in major regional conflicts,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told The National Interest in an interview.
Certainly non-stealthy 4th-Gen aircraft are not in a position to be “penetrating,” given the technological sophistication and advancements of both Russian and Chinese air defenses. When it comes to achieving air-to-air and air-to-ground superiority, speed, stealth and 5th-Gen sensing will be necessary. Deptula, a former F-15 pilot and Air Force 3- star general, was the principal air campaign planner in Operation Desert Storm, and a joint task force commander for no-fly zone operations over Iraq where he flew hundreds of combat hours, and later the director of air operations in the opening attacks against al Qaeda and the Taliban in response to the 9/11 attacks.
His view, one shared by many at the Pentagon, is that modern, high-risk air attacks in contested or extremely well defended areas armed with either Chinese HQ-9s or Russian S-400s will require a large volume of continued “penetrating” strikes.
“Desert Storm consisted of approximately 40,000 aimpoints. We averaged over 1,200 strike sorties a day. If you look at any kind of South China Sea or Eastern European scenario you could be looking at 100,000 aim points,” Deptula said.
The point here is that in a vast, expansive great power conflict, tens of thousands of known aimpoints will need to be attacked and many others will quickly emerge to require even more “penetrating” attacks, a scenario which many contend quite simply that 4th-Gen aircraft will be ill-equipped to handle. For sure, stand-off weapons and surface-to-surface one-way missiles cannot be afforded in anywhere near the quantities required to be operationally significant in this kind of scenario.
An additional reality is that both Russia and China possess a growing fleet of 5th-Gen aircraft, such as the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-31. While new computing, advanced sensors and long-range weaponry built into 4th-Gen aircraft may close the gap to some extent, it does not appear at all likely that upgraded 4th-Gen aircraft would perform well against these rival platforms.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why new countries continue to ask for F-35s, existing F-35 customers seek to buy more and the U.S. Air Force has already flown some kind of 6th-Gen aircraft.
However, criticisms and concerns regarding the F-35 continue to echo throughout the halls of Congress, coupled with the emerging prospect that the 2022 budget could be amended to cut the size of any planned F-35 buy, leading many to contemplate the potential impact of any kind of large-scale reduction in the acquired number of Joint Strike Fighters.
What might it mean to the future force for there to either be a substantial decrease in F-35 force size, major delay or slow-down in production? The prospect, which could manifest in the form of F-35 budget “mark-ups” in the House Armed Services Committee decreasing funds for the plane, would still need to survive Senate deliberations and be upheld in conference proceedings later in the year.
Nonetheless, the possibility is realistic, particularly in light of recent comments from prominent members of HASC, to include HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Readiness Subcommittee Chair Rep. John Garamendi, who expressed sustainment concerns regarding the jet, according to a report in Air Force Magazine.
One interesting and significant element of this, which may have escaped more thorough consideration to some extent, may simply be that the F-35 will not remain as is in coming years, meaning the Pentagon and Lockheed developers have embarked upon an ambitious long-term sustainment and development plan for the F-35 called Continuous Capabilities Development and Delivery (C2D2).
While certainly a bit of a buzz word, the phrase speaks to a detailed plan to ensure the F-35 maintains its technological and performance edge in coming years through upgrades, weapons enhancements, software drops and other kinds of ongoing modernization initiatives. This is the reason many planners anticipate the F-35 will fly well into the 2070s and beyond.
The stealth coating can be maintained and enhanced through a complex laser “peening” process, new software blocks or iterations will continue to add new weapons and sensing to the aircraft, expected technical improvements in the areas of sensor range and image fidelity and AI-enabled computing enhancements are expected to ensure the F-35 continues to mature and evolve. The upcoming F-35 Block IV software drop, for example, will integrate weapons interfaces enabling use of a first-of-its-kind, long-range, precision-guided air-dropped bomb called the Stormbreaker. The weapon, engineered with a two-way datalink and tri-mode targeting seeker, is able to track, follow and destroy moving enemy targets in all weather conditions at ranges up to 40 miles.
While the F-35s weapons and stealth technology are argued by advocates to be unparalleled throughout the world, the aircraft’s largest margin of superiority when compared to rival platforms may be found in its sensing and computing. New stealth configurations, engine technologies and other kinds of fighter-jet innovations will definitely emerge in coming years, yet the majority of combat performance-enhancing breakthroughs are likely to be in the realm of software, computing, mission systems and sensing, meaning it may not necessarily be imperative to design a new airframe.
At the same time, regardless of its actual form, shape or particular destination, there is evidence that there must be technological breakthroughs found in the areas of fighter jet design and propulsion significant enough to inspire the massive acceleration of a now-airborne 6th Gen jet. However, current Air Force thinking seems to suggest that the new 6th-Gen is intended to fly alongside and “complement” the F-35 for decades into the future, suggesting that the new 6th-Gen aircraft may emerge as more of a next-gen, high-speed “F-22-like” platform. This would make sense given that the F-22 fleet is much smaller at only 186 aircraft and weapons developers have for years been clear that they are in great demand. Perhaps the decision not to restart an F-22 production line was in part aligned with plans for a 6th-Gen aircraft.
As for any kind of formal F-35-related Air Force indication, service Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown recently said the Air Force maintains its plan to acquire more than 1,700 F-35s, and even responded to the possibility of an uptick in production to mitigate concerns from Combatant Commanders that they were not arriving fast enough.
Given all of this, when facing the proposed idea of a production slow-down or step back, many F-35 proponents and senior Pentagon leaders are actually thinking the opposite, meaning that rapid acceleration may be the best approach. Brown and others have discussed the possibility of an F-35 production “spike.”
“The quickest way to get capability on the ramp is to increase the F-35 production rate,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told The National Interest in an interview.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.