hnair wrote:Yeah, there is no option but to go for a fully survivable, stealthy and expensive UCAV for CAS against a serious opponent
I don't think anyone would do that or go down that path. CAS, as in supporting ground troops in close proximity to the enemy, has and will continue to evolve. What were once limiting constraints (forcing a particular decision and CONOPS) are no longer rigid impediments. Things like de-confliction times for other weapon systems, the capability to dial a weapon to target, and the ability to create go and no-go zones for weapons. Modern FAC/JTAC's can handle all of that and a lot more. Long range ground based precision fire deconfliction (at 200+ km ranges) time was in the 60-90 minute range during the Gulf War. It is now around 5 minutes and one of the goals of the Next Generation systems (ABMS and MDO more specifically) is to shrink it down to seconds instead of minutes. So this opens up all sort of surface to surface fires as legitimate "dial-a-weapon" options whereas once their use on the battlefield required extensive de-confliction, mission planning and airborne targeting support which was a few orders of magnitude outside the CAS kill cycle. That will no longer be the case come 2030. This is why ABMS is actually a more important program, as far as US Military is concerned, than the 6th generation NGAD.
If you are referring to the need to support ground troops inside double digit SAM envelopes (and why those systems wouldn't be degraded or destroyed ahead of time or concurrent to placing troops in the region), or those guarded by 5th or 6th gen fighters then there are now many many more viable options than fixed winged aircraft. The list will only grow. Precision Guided MLRSs are already good at 150 km and they are looking to take that to 200 km. Similarly, precision tube artillery out to 70 km is going to be possible in the next 18-24 months and this number will likely cross 100 km well ahead of when any MQ-Next is fielded. Then there are loitering munitions either AL, AL-and Air-recovered, or ground launched. ABMS essentially opens up a plethora of stand off options for CAS because you are no longer limited by launch aircraft parameters and information/SA at the time of launch. You don't need a predator/reaper circling right above the troops with the ability to drop a helfire or an SDB when needed. Those JTACs can now dial up or down and select the type of support they require depending upon the effect they desire.
The utility of the Predator/Reaper/Global-Hawk class of aircraft is in tasks that require persistence and the ability to generate and hold orbits. No manned aircraft can perform those tasks equally as good so if you need and value that capability, be it for ISR, strike or EW, then you will continue to utilize these and kit them appropriately to make them more capable and more survivable.
They don't solve for all dilemmas nor is that claimed. Things like RQ-180 are needed because you need to find and fix hard to find and fix targets deep inside enemy territory. Think C2, discriminating against decoys, TEL's, and SAM systems. But that is just one aspect of the unmanned mission. There are many others where the non-stealthy and less survivable UAV's and UCAV's will continue to be utilized to great success.
brar_w, 3-5 decades means it will still have to deal with older very agile fighters which will still be around, right? At some point in a war, a sixth-gen craft will come in contact with someone like WgCmdr Abhinandan riding a pre-5th gen old warhorse and who has scant respect for DEW hardening and the philosophy behind why a Flying Chavi-bar is travelling in a straight line. He will politely say "that looks nice!" but will do what he likes to do - flame that thing in front of him. I am sure a 6th gen fighter should be a progression from fifth-gen agility and not just regress back to Bleriot days.
If your point is that the 6th gen platforms will need to hold their own against 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th generation aircraft across a myriad of various combat scenarios at varying ranges and mission parameters then I agree. This will be a requirement. This is why the USAF spends so much ($$ and blood
) in testing adversary aircraft and developing a deep understanding of the Fulcrums and Flankers of the world by physically flying examples and developing advanced models based on those results to offer to its designers. But they think in terms of campaigns and not individual platforms or one on one capabilities. So when they invest their money it will be in a portfolio of capability that collectively will aim to provide them a tactical advantage against an adversary operating these types. This was exactly how the ATF and the JSF did it and there is no reason not to follow the "enterprise wide" approach. It is the collective capability that you bring to the fight and that is the level at which you need to design requirements to defeat what your opponent is putting out. The DOTMLPF or a hybrid-DOTMLPF approach has worked for the US so I suspect it will remain the primary driver of system requirements.
So yeah, between a generational advancement in sensor suite, electronic warfare, self-defense, signature, and the employment of directed energy weapons against incoming missiles and aircraft, and the ability to manuever to employ these systems across their entire envelope, the 6GFA will have to offer a considerable leap over 5GFA. Not to mention bring newer things on the table. And this has to extend to how pilots (or AI) of the future will be trained, equipped, and how these systems will be sustained. These are all legitimate areas one can use to create an advantage for oneself and pull ahead of your enemy.
BTW, the threat of DEW's isn't just from other 6GFA. These are going to be on 4th and 5th Gen fighter aircraft as well. In fact,
Lockheed will flight test a scalable (up to100 kW) HEL pod on an F-16 in 2025. Raytheon has already flown such a pod on the AH-64E (though much lower power levels for the relevant air to surface mission set).https://breakingdefense.com/2020/09/loc ... r-by-2025/
The notion that a 6GFA will just be able to fly straight and level is probably quite far from reality. The NGAD is an F-22 replacement and it will have to replace the OCA mission first and foremost. But much like the ATF program did back in the 80's and 90's (to the anger of some folks who were stuck in time) they will focus on air-combat superiority across the relevant close and stand off missions. The need would be to field a superior air combat capability than the F-22A which is now essentially a 30 year old design.
So how you do the air superiority mission in the US vs China context is the real question?? If Skyborg continuous to prove (Skyborg is on a 2-4 year time horizon) that experienced combat pilots will continue to get killed by AI driven sub $30 Million drones armed with 2-4 missiles then what do you do? What about, the "tyranny of distance" in the Pacific? What does a fighter aircraft with a 1,000 nautical mile combat radius, that is pushing the boundaries of fighter pilot endurance (on a combat A2A mission), low-observability (how else do you survive against a numerically superior force that is fighting closer to home than you) look like? Does the USAF even need a traditional F-22/F-15 like fighter? Or do they really need something like a 6th generation version of the F-111 controlling cheaper Skyborgs?
I think the hint to all those lies in the USAF's Chief of Staff's quote that not
all NGAD capabilities (the five I mentioned earlier) would reside on one platform. I think they see the writing on the wall. There is no room for a type for type replacement of the F-22 in the modern USAF. They need to do the Air-Superiority mission differently in a way that is more effective in the Pacific theater against a force that can out number them (in theater) by a factor of 3:1 if not considerably more. A better "F-22/5GFA" won't get them there. They will need to think this problem from the same "offset" lens that gave them stealth, PGM's, GPS and other capabilities developed in the 70's and mastered in the 80s and 90s. What that is (beyond a cursory look at what is a "gap" they are trying to fill) is beyond my ability to imagine. But we'll know in the next 3-5 years.