Lockheed Martin says it is too early to discount highly maneuverable fighter aircraft designs for future US Air Force and Navy warplanes, even as advances in long-range air-to-air missile technology makes dogfights less likely.
According to the company’s director of advanced air dominance and unmanned systems strategy, Bob Ruszkowski, the US must be prepared to fight outnumbered, and air-to-air missiles can be countered.
“In a situation where maybe there’s a numerical mismatch between the number of threat aircraft and the number of allied aircraft, there may be situations where dogfighting emerges, even as a secondary capability, but one you may have to resort to,” Ruszkowski tells Flightglobal. “Or, in situations where long-range missiles are negated by some other capabilities and now they’re rendered relatively ineffective. What bet are you going to make?”
Some in Washington have argued that speed and agility should not automatically be key attributes of a sixth-generation combat aircraft, since those design attributes could be traded for greater size, range and payload. According to a report published in April by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the lethality of a large combat aircraft "may be competitive or even superior to more traditional fighter aircraft designs".
“We're at a point where it's time to think long-term, and hard, about what attributes we want and need and make everything earn its way onto the platform,” the report's author John Stillion said at an Air Force Association event last month. “Don't just assume it's going to be fast and agile.”
Ruszkowski agrees that a larger combat jet might be preferred in the future, but it’s too early to tell.
“I don’t believe anybody has defined what those attributes are,” he says, while noting that the Vietnam War-era McDonnell Douglas F-4 was delivered without a gun, but one had to be installed later as a “fallback capability” because air-to-air missiles of the day proved to be less effective in combat than imagined.
“They needed a fallback capability,” he says.
Lockheed has been exploring sixth-generation aircraft capabilities and designs in earnest since 2009, and Ruszkowski says the company is looking for high-payoff technologies to invest in.
He thinks assured communications with satellites and other aircraft will be essential, and next-generation weapons will be a “discriminating” factor on any future air dominance platform. To that end, the company is investing heavily in hypersonic air vehicles laser weapons.
Last year, the company demonstrated a new beam control turret for an airborne laser, conducting eight flight tests in a surrogate aircraft over Michigan. Lockheed is also exploring the propulsion, materials and sensor technologies needed to develop an air-launched hypersonic missile.
“They’re not only applicable for next-generation air dominance platforms, but they’re applicable for current-generation platforms,” Ruszkowski says.
The navy is looking to replace its Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets in the late 2020s. The air force wants to develop a truly next-generation platform through its Air Dominance 2030 initiative.