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Thinking Outside the Box for the Air Force's Next-Gen Aircraft

The Air Force's next-generation aircraft may defy traditional categorization.

It'll likely surpass the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in range, but may not be as mission-specific as a bomber. It might not require a stealth coating over the entire aircraft. Perhaps lasers will be incorporated into the airframe to increase its survivability.

These are options analysts are discussing as the service preps its next-gen "capability" to penetrate counter air offensive or defensive weapons, and readies itself for the next high-end threat around the globe, officials said Monday during a panel discussion.

"As we went through the [study], we specifically precluded ourselves from using the word fighter," said Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, head of an Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team. Last year, he and the ECCT released the Air Force's plan for next-generation air dominance, known as Air Superiority 2030.

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The study is designed to identify shortcomings in the existing fighter fleet that could be addressed with advanced fighter aircraft, sensors and weapons in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.  

"Air combat is not all about fighter aircraft dogfighting anymore … it's about bringing a network to bear, and attributes [penetrating counterair] needs in terms of range, persistence, survivability, lethality," said Grynkewich, who was joined by team members Air Force Col. Tom Coglitore, concept development lead, and Jeff Saling, the analysis lead for the ECCT, during an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute on Capitol Hill.

Coglitore said another study is being conducted to determine the needed attributes: manned, unmanned, range, type of weapons suite, among others. The findings should be published next year, he said.

For example, Grynkewich said, "We collectively were guilty for a while in thinking that stealth was the only thing we needed to think about -- [that] the stealthier something was, that the better it was. When you compare, in the discussion of survivability, you now can talk about other forms of electronic warfare to supplement, you can talk about how speed plays [into it] often."

The general said stealth is the "price of entry," but other effects such as speed can be a trade-off to "mitigate the threat using other attributes."

Grynkewich added, "The sensor part, to me, is actually more important," referencing long-range sensors that identify targets such as ballistic or cruise missiles, "because those sensors enable not just the shooting from [penetrating counter air] … it also enables any standoff weapons that we have in the inventory to be deployed from further away."

Adding Lasers

How directed energy may fit into a "weapons systems" for a next-generation platform -- and current aircraft -- is still being fleshed out, Saling said. "Directed energy is coming. There is a lot of great progress that's been made."

Saling said lasers are "highly desired, [but] there's a lot of integration [that] still has to occur before that can happen in an airborne platform."

Whether used offensively or defensively, "it's just a matter of where we can start integrating those into a system," he said.

Coglitore noted, however, there is no official requirement for lasers. It comes down to whether lasers can help the aircraft survive in an anti-access aerial denial, known as A2AD, environment.

"We're comparing it to other alternatives" in weapons use, he said, without giving specifics.

"Munitions also need to be able to change rapidly," Grynkewich said. "Profusion happens over time, depending how the threat evolves."

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