Orlando -- The Air Force would like to start work on a sixth generation fighter. It would. And it will work on advanced technologies at the service labs and encourage industry to keep ploughing ahead on promising technologies. But Air Force Secretary Mike Donley made very clear at the Air Force Association conference that the service is focused on building the coming fifth generation aircraft (also known as the Joint Strike Fighter) and has no plans to begin investing the nation's treasure on a new aircraft.
"I don't think you are going to see a sixth generation fighter program any time soon," Donley told reporters on Friday. "We do not have the resources available to ramp up for a sixth gen fighter. We are still working on the fifth."
Keenly aware of how important it is for the United States to appear not to be abandoning what could be a critical future set of capabilities, Donley added that "the early pieces of what would constitute a future program are already out there."
But he could not put a pretty face on the fact that the U.S. just cannot afford such an effort at this time. "We are living with flat budgets," he said, adding that no one knows "when or if those budgets will increase."
It's not clear whether this marks a public turnaround for Donley. In a piece penned with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in the Washington Post, they said: "Within the next few years, we will begin work on the sixth-generation capabilities necessary for future air dominance. Donley could argue they are still working on those capabilities. just not within the purview of a formal program structure.
When I asked Donley if the absence of a sixth-generation effort was clear evidence of a decline in the US strategic position, he offered a reasonable reply: "The United States is still, and as far a I can tell, the U.S. will remain the essential force for stability in international security."