The RAAF is more than halfway through the delivery of its planned fleet of 72 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighters.
Selected in 2002 to replace the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornet and General Dynamics F-111C strike aircraft in service, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program which resulted in the F-35A suffered a prolonged development which saw numerous schedule slips and a major aircraft re-design, with the program really only turning the corner in recent years.
For Australia, initially working within a joint training system with the US and other partners and the RAAF’s comparative small size and greater agility compared to other operators, has resulted in a relatively smooth introduction into service for the F-35A. With the establishment of key facilities at Williamtown near Newcastle, the equipping and manning of combat and operational conversion squadrons, and the successful conduct of a conversion course on home soil, the F-35A achieved an initial operational capability (IOC) with the RAAF at the end of 2020.
While the F-35A was originally intended to be the RAAF’s sole air combat solution, recent developments in unmanned or uncrewed capabilities such as the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) being developed for the RAAF’s Loyal Wingman program, combined with heightened geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, means that model may be being re-assessed.
In US Air Force service, the F-35A was to be the lower of a two-tiered ‘hi-lo’ air combat capability mix, with the higher tier planned to comprise up to 750 Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors. But Raptor production was drastically curtailed, topping out at just 187 when production ended in 2011 as the Obama administration went ‘all-in’ on the F-35 and diverted defence funding to equipment better-suited to counter-insurgency wars.
While there is some overlap with the F-22’s capabilities and, indeed, some missions it does better, the F-35 will never match the Raptor’s speed, range, and agility. And the F-35A’s slow program ramp-up has meant 30-plus year old F-15s and F-16Cs – the aircraft the F-22 and F-35A were meant to replace – have had to be retained and upgraded, while at least 144 significantly enhanced F-15EXs have been programmed.
Because of the shortfall in F-22 numbers – only about 130 of which are reportedly ‘combat coded’ – the USAF is now looking at what comes next at the ‘hi’ end of its two-tiered air combat mix, and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program is what it expects to deliver it.
The concept of ‘generations’ is becoming a difficult one to grasp. Up until the late 1990s it was quite easy to categorise jet-powered combat aircraft into generations – from the 1st generation of aircraft that emerged in the post-WW2 years, to the 2nd generation transonic jets of the early 1950s, to the 3rd generation supersonic radar and air-to-air missile-equipped jets of the late 1950s and early 1960s, to the highly-manoeuvrable 4th generation jets of the 1970s and 80s.
Business development managers coined the 5th generation tag in the 1990s so they could promote the advances of all-aspect low-observable stealth, supercruise, internal weapons carriage, and the data-fusion capabilities of the F-22 and F-35. But there are many aircraft – the Sukhoi Su-35, F/A-18E/F Block II/III, JAS-39E/F Gripen, Eurofighter EF-2000 T3, and Dassault Rafale F4 – that are clearly superior to the older 4th generation jets, but don’t tick many of the 5th generation boxes, hence the awkward 4.5 or 4++ gen references.
Similarly, and despite being dubbed as ‘6th generation’ capabilities by some in the media, NGAD is more likely to advance many of the current and emerging 5th generation capabilities rather than incorporating enough revolutionary capabilities to warrant its own 6th generation category.
While the obvious goal is to provide ‘air dominance’, the Pentagon has been coy about what exactly NGAD is. But it has been drip-feeding snippets of information in recent months and, what is clear is that, rather than just being a new aircraft program like the JSF, Advanced Technology Bomber (Northrop B-2A), Advanced Tactical Fighter (F-22), Long Range Strike Bomber (Northrop Grumman B-21), and other acronym-rich development programs, NGAD is expected to bring together advanced technologies and multiple integrated systems to realise its goal.
NGAD appears to have a goal where ‘the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts’, with those parts comprising not only an air combat aircraft, but also a distributed system of advanced surface, air, and space-based sensors, and resilient beyond line-of-sight data and communications systems such as the battlefield airborne communications node (BACN) integrated with advanced third-party platforms.
An October 2020 Congressional Research Service paper says, “NGAD could take the form of a single aircraft and/or a number of complementary systems – manned, unmanned, optionally manned, cyber, electronic – forms that would not resemble the traditional ‘fighter’.”
Regardless of the system’s complementary capabilities, the NGAD fighter – whether it’s crewed, uncrewed, or optionally crewed – will need to have range and a magazine depth far greater than those of current fighters in order to be an overmatch for adversary aircraft and systems currently entering service or in development, and to be able to survive against an adversary with an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) posture.
It should be noted that the US Navy also has its own NGAD program, more commonly known as ‘FA-XX’. Designed to replace the F/A-18E/F in service – even though Block III Super Hornets are still in production – the USN is currently in a concept-refinement phase.
Despite being quite separate to the USAF’s NGAD effort…for now, the USN seems to have similar goals of developing a ‘family’ of systems. The service is reportedly looking at a mix of manned and unmanned systems with a carrier wing mix of 40:60 respectively, and with FA-XX forming the centrepiece manned element.
Gregory Harris, the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations’ Air Warfare Directorate pointed in a recent article on www.af.mil to the possible adoption of unmanned “little buddy” systems, new electronic warfare platforms to replace the EA-18G Growler, and a replacement for the E-2D Hawkeye as being complementary capabilities to, or elements of his service’s carrier-borne NGAD system.
The advanced technologies being pursued for NGAD include new propulsion developments such as variable cycle engines, advances in very-low observable (VLO) shaping and materials, advanced weapons including directed energy weapons, and new techniques and technologies for managing thermal signatures. Other influencing factors are likely to include advanced manned-unmanned teaming with resilient networks and a high-degree of autonomy enabled by artificial intelligence.
Variable or adaptive cycle engines are designed to operate efficiently in subsonic, transonic, and supersonic flight regimes. The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) had funded the development of such engines through its Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT) and follow-on Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD) programs which ran from 2012 to 2016, and industry is reportedly well-advanced in developing engines for service.
Variable engines achieve their efficiency through adding or removing additional streams of air, having compressor stages that can be engaged and disengaged, variable bypass ratios, reconfigurable intake or exhaust nozzle geometry, or a combination of these.
General Electric and Pratt & Whitney have developed advanced derivatives of their F136 and F135 engines respectively that utilise adaptive elements, and these have reportedly shown improvements in thrust and fuel efficiency across the subsonic, transonic, and supersonic flight regimes. Increased engine efficiency will lead to better thermal management of the exhaust, an important capability in light of the proliferation of advanced infra-red search and track (IRST) sensors.
In the stealth world, there are sure to have been significant developments made in VLO technologies since the F-35 was designed nearly 20 years ago. More advanced flight control systems could eliminate the need for radar-reflecting vertical and horizontal stabilisers, the miniaturisation of sensors and communications will allow for embedded sensors and conformal/flush apertures, advances in modelling and simulation will result in better shaping and aerodynamics, and new manufacturing techniques will allow finer tolerances and new materials to be used.
Weapons under development include advanced long-range air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) or Raytheon’s Peregrine concept, various stand-off air-to-surface and hypersonic weapons, and directed energy weapons such as lasers. While directed-energy weapons have rightly until recently been seen as ‘vapourware’, the emergence of higher output engines, more efficient generators, and advances in the miniaturisation and reduction in power requirements of sensors means, in theory, more power can be allocated to such weapons.
Israel has already demonstrated an ability to shoot down a small drone with a laser mounted on a Cessna Caravan, so the basic principle has been proven, although the integration of such a weapon with a fighter-size platform is likely at least a decade or more away.
The concept of manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is progressing rapidly, with it having been proven operationally with manned US Army helicopters operating with small to medium-sized UAS such as the Shadow 200. The RAAF’s Loyal Wingman and USAF’s Skyborg programs are looking to scale the concept up to include fighter-sized UAS working with manned aircraft such as AEW&C, tankers, and fighters such as the F-15EX and F/A-18F.
The possibilities offered by UAS that offer fighter-like performance and that can employ weapons, sensors, or electronic warfare payloads in contested airspace are almost endless, and such systems are likely to form a key capability adjunct to any next generation air combat system.
MUM-T will also likely take a greater prominence through the US’s MQ-Next program which is seeking a replacement for the MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper series. Likely to be jet-powered and stealthy in design, MQ-Next may be a mix of attritable and high-end systems that will work closely with manned systems in providing close air support and armed-overwatch in contested environments.
Many of these MUM-T concepts will only be able to be realised if resilient and trusted communications networks can be established between platforms, and this will be enabled by the continued development of current and the adoption of new generation onboard and offboard datalink systems.
By their very nature, the data-sharing/fusion systems of the F-35 and F-22 can only be shared with other aircraft of the same type. But airborne gateway systems such as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) currently employed on EQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned platforms and converted business jets such as the E-11 Global Express are able to translate data from these platforms and share them with command and control elements, or other aircraft. BACN also provides a beyond-line-of-sight node over terrain, or can expand the communications horizon of ground forces or low-flying aircraft.
Along with other sensors, BACN or a development of it is rumoured to be carried by the Northrop Grumman RQ-180 – reportedly dubbed ‘Shikaka’, but probably not its official designation or name – a high-flying, stealthy blended flying-wing unmanned platform that was photographed flying over southern California last year, and which has only been barely acknowledged once.
The BACN capability has already been proven through successful deployments of EQ-4Bs and E-11s to the Middle East in recent years, and the reported use of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAS – a relatively small blended flying-wing airframe – in a communications relay role during the 2011 Operation Neptune Spear raid which targeted Osama Bin Laden.
A miniaturised BACN-like (lite?) payload that could be carried by a Skyborg or Loyal Wingman-like system – or even in a pod on a manned aircraft – would be a highly valuable asset when employing a large force of disparate systems and platforms, especially if it includes 5th gen or NGAD platforms.
Existing 4th and 4.5 gen platforms such as the F-16C/D, F-15C/E, and F-15EX will continue to provide mass for the USAF tactical fighter force. Indeed, the two-seat F-15EX may pick up a secondary role, with the weapons system operator (WSO) becoming the human interface in a MUM-T scenario involving Skyborg, MQ-Next, or other uncrewed combat systems.
In the meantime, the USAF has budgeted US$9bn (A$12bn) for NGAD development from FY2019 to FY2025 which, on face value, doesn’t seem like much when compared to other aircraft development programs. But the separately-funded complementary programs mentioned above are sure to play a big role in building the ‘system-of-systems’ that will underpin whatever NGAD turns out to be.
In September 2020, then USAF Acquisition Executive Dr Will Roper announced that the USAF had flown a full-scale demonstrator of NGAD. Another snippet of information no doubt, but one that suggested the program was moving much faster than had previously been thought.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) paper says, “based on the movements of senior DOD officials, CRS assesses the first flight came on or about August 21, 2020.”
But the notion of what had “flown”, or “flight” means, is open for debate. It may not have been an actual flight test and instead was a modelling and simulation ‘bench test’; or new sensors, communications, or stealth capabilities were flown on an airborne testbed; or it may even be as advanced as an ‘X-plane’ prototype which may evolve into the NGAD fighter. But the use of the word “demonstrator” suggests the testbed or X-plane angles are the most likely.
One revolution the NGAD is also hoping to introduce is a new development and acquisition model. The CRS paper says, “One goal is an effort to split design, production, and sustainment so that whoever designs an aircraft might not get the production contract, and whoever gets the production contract may not also support the aircraft in the field.”
This could also mean the USAF is looking at building multiple types to cover the various mission requirements, rather than trying to develop an exquisite platform to do everything. Hopefully, the ATF and JSF lessons have been learned.
AN AUSTRALIAN ANGLE
So what does NGAD mean for Australia? It depends.
On the one hand, Australia is already developing its own system of networked systems and command and control elements that are designed to plug seamlessly into the US’s system in the event of a major coalition operation. The RAAF’s EA-18G, MC-55A, E-7A, P-8A, MQ-4C, F-35A, and forthcoming space-based platforms will all feed vital sensor data into a joint force in this context, as will the RAN’s Aegis and cooperative engagement capability (CEC)-equipped Hobart class destroyers and Hunter class frigates.
On the other hand, an Australian ‘NGAD-lite’ system is arguably already being built around the F-35A itself, although it won’t be a distributed combat system like that planned for the US.
While the F-35A may not enjoy the range, persistence, or magazine depth of the US’s ultimate air combat platform, the above mentioned complementary capabilities are either already in place or well advanced, and fully capable of building a system-of-systems of our own.