Is the Air Force seriously talking about another plane?

A recent DefenseNews article recounts ongoing discussions about how the Air Force would achieve air superiority by 2030 and outlines the newest ideas regarding Air Force platforms. The piece reminds me of discussions I encountered years ago. When I was on active duty, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Jumper always stressed that our branch would never aim for parity in warfare — meaning, the Air Force would always strive to outpace our adversaries in both technology and strategy. I appreciated the unrelenting push for excellence. And Brig. General Alexus Grynkewich appears to have some worthwhile arguments for a 2030 platform, which I will address momentarily.

Unfortunately, the current quagmire with the F-35 and the move away from the F-22 has created enormous skepticism about future aircraft – and rightfully so. Trotting out news that the Air Force is already pushing ideas for new aircraft will undoubtedly frustrate readers already puzzled by the current situation of cost overruns and meaningless deadlines.

The F-35/F-22 problems stem from an instance where influencers essentially told the government what the military “needed” and the government agreed. After all, Lockheed — a solid and reputable company, to be sure — earned contracts for the F-22 and F-35. That’s quite a feat. The military has since had to push back on several stupid congressional ideas as a result of those contracts, such as the goal of retiring the A-10. Fellow NCPA blogger Chris Wiley explains here why the retirement of the A-10 would be a tactical and strategic mistake.

The problems have now compounded. The F-22 is an American-only aircraft. It has an incredible array of capabilities and was ready to use until the Pentagon halted its manufacturing. In comparison, the F-35 is spread between Air Force, Navy and Marines AND 12 different countries. It has become the European Union of aircraft: slow to service, incredibly expensive and responds to setbacks with demands for more money. In concept, the F-35 was unmatched. In reality, it is a flying computer that no general officer in their right mind would fly in Close Air Support (CAS) like an A-10, lest it get shot down by a cheap jihadi rocket. This thing is so technologically advanced and so expensive, few will risk using it.

The Air Force has moved the way of the cell phone, where everything anyone could need can be found in one platform. That is good for consumer-driven technology and very bad for warfare. You never want all your eggs-in-one-basket.  That’s why I find Gen. Grynkewich’s comments about the next fighter a bit more palatable than I had expected.

The general mentions this newest idea may not be a fighter and makes convincing arguments for changing the nomenclature from “sixth” generation fighter to “next” generation fighter. “You start to have an argument over what does ‘sixth gen’ mean. Does it have laser beams, is it hypersonic? What is it? What does it look like? That’s not a useful conversation,” he explained. “The more useful conversation is, what are the key attributes we need in order to gain and maintain air superiority in 2030?”

According to him, the United States gains and maintains air superiority in 2030 by focusing primarily on range and payload. He explains any future platform would have to be responsive to probable areas of future engagement, such as the Pacific theater. For that reason, increased payload and the ability to overcome the “tyranny of distance” remain so crucial. This is an important distinction since the F-35 responds to “whiz-bang” technologies, rather than mission.

I am not completely sold on moving into yet another discussion about aircraft. But the Pentagon must remain forward-thinking, despite past decisions. And it seems like the discussion is headed in the right direction.

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