The U.S. Air Force isn't ruling out bringing a new fighter jet into its inventory as it looks to replace older, fourth-generation F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, according to the service's top general.
As the service tries to determine the right mix of aircraft for its future inventory, it's considering the idea of a new fighter that falls somewhere between fourth- and fifth-generation airframes -- one that could easily be upgraded throughout its life, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said last week.
"Let's not just buy off the shelf; let's actually take a look at something else out there that we can build," Brown said during a Defense Writers Group virtual chat with reporters. He added that the service would want something that can be economically sustainable, produced quickly and has an open-architecture software system that can be rapidly modified to keep up with missions.
His comments reiterated those of Dr. Will Roper, the former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, and Mike Holmes, a retired general and former head of Air Combat Command. In recent months, both have spoken of wanting to bring in a new jet with a "family of systems" that lets it connect easily to other aircraft and fight alongside them.
Roper told Aviation Week in January that the Air Force is weighing buying new F-16 fighters from Lockheed Martin as "a capacity solution" to increase its jet inventory. Lockheed moved its production line to its South Carolina plant in 2019 to centralize its manufacturing of F-16s, which have been updated since the last jet was delivered to the Air Force in 2005.
But Brown said the F-16 may not be the best option.
"I want to be able to build something new and different that's not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach," he said Feb. 17.
Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter program, the Air Force has maintained that older Falcons should be replaced by the fifth-gen F-35 Lightning II, also made by Lockheed. The Air Force is the largest customer for the aircraft, with hopes to procure 1,763 F-35 A-variants.
But in March 2020, Holmes hinted that there may be some wiggle room as the service assesses its inventory needs.
"When [F-16s] need to be replaced, what am I going to replace them with?" Holmes said during the annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference at the time.
The Air Force should also be thinking ahead, he said, citing the service's fighter road map, which roughly outlines where its aircraft inventory and platforms should be by 2030 and beyond.
"What we're trying to work through is to think about it as a capability road map to say, 'What is going to do the mission we've been doing with fighters?' [and] work [that idea] into the future," he said. "The answer to, 'Is it manned? Unmanned?' [is] yes."
So far, the service has not publicly moved away from the F-35 program. But according to Aviation Week, future budgets could limit its inventory. The magazine reported in December that the service might cap its total F-35 buy at 1,050 stealth fighters.
Just how the service's fighter road map may develop is unknown. The Air Force is also considering how to work in the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which defies the traditional categorization of a single platform, featuring a network of advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.
The NGAD program could include fighters and autonomous drones fighting side-by-side. For example, the autonomous Skyborg -- which aims to pair artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet -- is intended for reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission; the drones are considered "attritable," or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.
In 2019, senior defense officials with the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office said they arrived at the F-15EX decision because the aircraft would help keep a diverse and "robust industrial base" while providing "a higher-capacity" combination alongside the F-35.
The service awarded Boeing an estimated $1.2 billion contract last summer to acquire eight multirole F-15EX fighters -- considered "fourth-plus-generation" -- and associated development, test and certification and support equipment.
Air Force officials have said the F-15EX's most significant upgrade will be its open mission systems architecture, which is in line with Brown's goals.
"I realize that folks have alluded that it will be a particular airplane," Brown said of a future fighter. "But I'm open to looking at other platforms to see what that right force mix is."