The US Air Force could field its Penetrating Counterair platform on a fast track, according to the service’s head of Air Combat Command.

The USAF will likely purchase its sixth-generation aircraft in batches and add capabilities along the way, rather than wait for years for an exquisite platform, Gen Mike Holmes told reporters 29 March. The service is already working with Congress to figure out what authorities would allow the air force to field a prototype and complete a fly-off, instead of a longer engineering, manufacturing and development process, Holmes says.

“If we did it the way we bought the F-22 and the F-35, it would still be 25 years away and I just don’t want to wait that long,” Holmes says. “That’s why we’re talking about doing a different acquisition model where we’ll buy probably more than 100, but some number of a version and see how those do and see what’s available and see if we want to add something in the next round.”

Holmes referenced the F-35 almost as a cautionary tale in acquisition, saying PCA will be developed in phases rather than spending 30 years in development. The USAF will examine which technology is “good enough” to field on the first PCA and then update the aircraft three or four years later, he says. The USAF has an ongoing analysis of alternatives for PCA, which will help determine whether a laser weapon will be ready for the aircraft's initial fielding in the 2030s.

The AOA is slated to complete in 2018 and will recommend requirements and what capabilities have reached the right technological maturity, Holmes says. The USAF will make a decision on which technologies buy their way onto the aircraft within the next three years, he adds.

The USAF has previously hinted it would field PCA using a rapid acquisition process, or at least add next-generation capabilities in a later iteration in order to field the aircraft more quickly. In an interview last year, the team lead for the USAF’s 2030 air superiority study told FlightGlobal that PCA would not wait for mature, high energy airborne lasers to debut. Instead, the USAF could load smaller, improved missiles onto the aircraft or design the platform to carry more missiles, Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich said.

Along with directed energy laser weapons, Holmes says a three-stream engine might not be ready for the first round of PCA.

“So we might accept a little less range,” he says. “We might accept going with a legacy engine like the engine that’s flying in the F-22 or something like that and then in the next batch, integrate that new engine.”