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USAF calls for a "penetrating counterair" study in 2017

The US military will lose air superiority by 2030 unless a host of new capabilities and sweeping changes to acquisition processes can be adopted and fielded within the next 14 years, including a new penetrating counter-air system, the US Air Force says in a newly-released strategy document.

The unclassified version of the “Air Superiority Flight Plan 2030” includes a harsh assessment of the USAF’s growing limitations against an array of future airpower threats. The USAF document does not name particular adversaries, but includes a picture of the Chinese AVIC J-20 stealth fighter to illustrate concerns about growing capabilities of potential adversaries.

With the Lockheed Martin F-35A, Northrop Grumman B-21 and Boeing KC-46 still in development, the Flight Plan also includes a damning critique of the US military’s acquisition system, calling for the service to reject pushing the limits of technology within a platform-based acquisition programme. Such platforms are put “at risk of cancellation due to their nearly inevitable under-performance and results in delivery of capabilities ‘late to need’ by years or even decades”, the Flight Plan says.

Instead, the strategy document, commissioned by the USAF chief of staff, calls for developing a portfolio of science and technology investments funded outside the parameters of a platform-based acquisition programme. As prototypes of those technologies are tested and matured, they can be transitioned into development.

The report adds context to recent proposals by the USAF to use alternative methods to develop and field a new kind of aircraft — often referred to as a sixth-generation fighter — to stay ahead of potential enemies after 2030. The report seems careful not to use conventional terms, such as fighter or bomber, to describe such an aircraft. Instead, it calls for developing a new “penetrating counter-air” (PCA) capability, among an array of new weapons, sensors and organisational changes.

The PCA concept suggests an aircraft that could enter and operate within hostile airspace protected by increasingly sophisticated air defence systems, including ground-based missiles and fighters. It “will certainly have a role in targeting and engaging [and] it also has a significant role as a node in the network, providing data from its penetrating sensors to enable employment using either stand-off or stand-in weapons”.

Since 2010, the USAF has performed an analysis of alternatives and further studies for a future sixth-generation fighter expected to replace the Lockheed F-22 after 2030. The new Flight Plan, however, indicates the USAF has shelved those plans to adopt a less conventional approach. It says the USAF “should proceed with a formal [analysis of alternatives] in 2017 for a PCA capability”.

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