As the Air Force refines its vision for its Penetrating Counterair platform, the service’s next standoff aircraft to address air superiority gaps, the USAF’s Scientific Advisory Board will undertake a separate study of the PCA.

The USAF Scientific Advisory Board announced its fiscal year 2017 studies last week, which will focus on PCA, nuclear recapitalisation programmes and an assessment of the service’s test and evaluation facilities. In January, the service will begin an 18-month analysis of alternatives that will help determine the PCA platform by examining the ability to reach supersonic speeds in different configurations while maintaining a stealth signature and manoeuvrability. The advisory board’s work would complement that effort, examining documents from the USAF’s air superiority enterprise capability collaboration team (ECCT) and providing a technology roadmap to meet the PCA’s 2030 timeline.

While some have called PCA the air force’s next-generation fighter, top USAF officials have eschewed the term “sixth generation,” says Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, team lead for the air force’s 2030 air superiority study, in an interview with FlightGlobal. The ECCT has all but settled on a fighter designation, though Grynkewich remains cautious about characterising the PCA effort as another fighter jet recapitalisation. Although the USAF is struggling with a smaller fleet of F-22s, upgrades on the the Raptor and the block 4 upgrade on the F-35 push the need for replacement fighters several years out. Grynkewich does not foresee air-to-ground as PCA’s primary role, indicating the service is not billing the platform as an F-15E or F-35 replacement.

“We’ll probably call it a fighter, it will probably have an F designation,” he says. “But what we want to do is open up our aperture and think a little bit more broadly about attributes.”

That means thinking outside the box about what the definition of a fighter might be. In the classic sense, a fighter is a short-range jet capable of flying at 9Gs, with a single seat, he says. The ECCT is emphasising range and payload, but the platform may not require 9Gs. Unlike most fighters, the PCA will not be short-range, but what space the aircraft will fit into will depend on cost and how the platform fits into the USAF’s tanker fleet. The air force also wants a stealthy signature for survivability, but also a speedy, manoeuvrable platform, he says.

While there’s no consensus yet on whether PCA should be unmanned, an enemy could disrupt a remotely piloted aircraft’s datalink. An autonomous solution could fare better in an A2AD environment, though a machine’s ability to make good air combat decisions has not been proved in flight yet and ethical questions loom over whether an autonomous system should take on a kill mission, Grynkewich says.

“So that’s kind of the rationale for, let’s not call it a fighter right off the bat,” he says. “But yeah, it’s going to be a platform that fights, so it probably will be a fighter but we’re trying to think a little bit more broadly.”

Whether the PCA follows a traditional fighter model or a flying wing design will come later in the USAF’s analysis, but the service is putting a premium on a long-range platform with a large magazine capacity that would prove highly lethal.

“On the lethality side, obviously the dream would be to have something with an unlimited magazine, something [like] directed energy type capabilities,” he says. “Is that going to be something that we can mature on the timelines we’re talking about? Maybe, maybe not, but whenever we get it, we’d really like to be able to do something like that.”

Industry officials from Lockheed Martin to Northrop Grumman have lauded directed energy’s ability to provide a deep, almost unlimited, magazine. But that could remain a dream right now for Grynkewich, as airborne lasers continue to languish in laboratories. Still, the platform’s timeline would not wait for those capabilities to debut. In order to stay on PCA’s timeline, the USAF could load smaller, improved missiles onto the aircraft or design the platform to carry more missiles, he says.

US Air Force leadership and Grynkewich have targeted initial operational capability for PCA around the mid to late-2020s, with the caveat that the programme will be both technology and budget driven. That may seem far away, but in order for technology to fly on the platform, Grynkewich wants those subsystems to reach a technical readiness level of at least six or seven by the late teens or early 2020s. Other critical subsystems, including landing gear, should achieve TRL 9 by that point, he adds.

The strict timeline could also drive the USAF to use off-the-shelf technology, rather than developing new assets, for the PCA. Rather than push for higher capabilities that could increase technical and programmatic risk, it’s more important for the USAF to meet the requirements for the 2030 timeline, Grynkewich says.

“It’s absolutely critical to hold that steady so we get the technologists time to develop those technologies that they need to,” he says. “Not waste our time or money on things that are not important to us.”