In the latest issue of the US Air Force’s Air and Space Power Journal, Col Michael Pietrucha, a veteran Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, argues for a new generation of lightweight fighters. But there is a catch, unlike the conventional conception of what most would visualize as a fighter, Pietrucha argues for a small unmanned combat aircraft, not to replace fifth-generation stealth fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but to act as a force multiplier.
Pietrucha envisions such an aircraft as a kind of semi-autonomous wingman that would in effect be a flying missile magazine under certain cirumstances–which is similar to a concept espoused by former undersecretary of the Navy, Bob Work, who is now the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. But the aircraft would be able to do much more using simple swarming techniques and modular payloads.
Requirements would be strictly limited to these:
• Autonomous flight; navigation (including instrument approach and terrain following); identification, friend or foe; and communications.
• Small size.
• High maneuverability (up to 7 g’s).
• F-16-like combat radius.
• High subsonic speed, service ceiling of at least 30,000 feet.
• Internal and external payload.
• Reduced radar and infrared signature (not necessarily “low observable”).
• Modular avionics fit.
• Short takeoff and landing (STOL).
• Capability of interfacing with tactical networks.
To illustrate his point, Pietrucha adopts the unorthodox tact of describing in detail a hypothetical unmanned fighter of the2020s which he dubs the F-40 Warhawk II. The aircraft is, for all intents and purposes, modular with completely reconfigurable weapons, sensors and even airframe. The description is complete with a fictional future history.
This is Pietrucha’s paper in full; it’s worth taking the time to read.
Another piece worth reading is by Lt Col Lawrence Spinetta, who writes about a perceived “glass ceiling” for those USAF officers serving as unmanned aircraft operators rather than as fighter pilots. Part of the problem, as Spinetta, himself a former F-15C pilot, is the lack of wing-command level positions for pilots assigned to unmanned aircraft units.
Agree or disagree with his point of view, Spinetta’s paper is well worth reading.