The Pentagon is poised to unveil a new collaborative research program in the upcoming 2016 defense budget submission which will seek to identify and develop dominant, next-generation aircraft technologies for the Air Force and Navy.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, mentioned the effort Wednesday to lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing on Pentagon technology and acquisition reform.
The new research program will involve the Pentagon’s research arm, called the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or DARPA. It will focus on new airframe and engine technology for future jet fighters, cargo planes and unmanned systems. Among other topics, the research effort will work closely on what 6th-generation fighter aircraft technologies will be needed to build an aircraft to succeed the 5th-generation F-35.
Various new designs for Navy and Air Force airplanes will be identified as “X”-planes, a Pentagon term often used to signify a yet-to-be-named platform under early development.
The Navy is in the early conceptual stages of an effort called F/A-XX designed to replace the F-18 in the 2030s. Service officials have not said much about this effort, in part because it is so early and there is plenty of scrutiny on the fifth generation fighters.
“Smart skins” which connect the fuselage with computer technology, super cruise ability and hypersonic speeds are among some of the technical attributes deemed likely to inform future designs, analysts maintain.
Lt. Gen. Mark Ramsay director, force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff, told HASC lawmakers the new effort involves air and space domain innovation initiatives.
“We’re looking at domains and how we are going to fight the future fight,” Ramsay told the committee.
When asked by a lawmaker, Ramsay said it would probably take about 15-years to develop a new, fully-developmental next-generation aircraft to replace the A-10 Warthog.
The rationale for the new effort hinges upon a much discussed global phenomenon – the pace of technological and military modernization of potential adversaries and near peer competitors such as China and Russia. There may well be a need for the U.S. to develop and field a 6th generation fighter aircraft because both Russia and China are known to be developing stealth aircraft engineered potentially to challenge the F-35.
“We are at risk and things are getting worse. I came back to the Pentagon in 2010 after being away. The intelligence estimates when I left in 1994 were that China was really not much of a problem for us but in 10 or 15 years they could be based on their economic rate of growth. The intelligence estimates were correct,” Kendall told the committee.
Numerous Pentagon and Congressional reports have detailed public information regarding the rapid growth of China’s missile arsenal, naval fleet, ground army and anti-satellite technologies.
Kendall said the U.S. no longer enjoys the overwhelming technological superiority it had during and after the first Gulf War in 1991. As many remember, the first Gulf War featured the combat debut of some precision guided weapons just as Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs, some stealth technologies and other kinds of military innovations. This military superiority has lasted more than 25-years and has served the U.S. well in Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia and Libya, Kendall explained in a written statement.
“I became alarmed as soon as I started seeing technical intelligence reports on China’s modernization programs. I could say the same of Russia’s modernization programs as well. We came out of the Cold War with a very dominant military. We demonstrated that military conclusively in the first Gulf War and we used it effectively against any conventional force since. Since 2001 we’ve been involved in counter insurgency,” Kendall said. “The precision-munitions revolution that we demonstrated has been emulated by others.”
In particular, Kendall explained how certain potential adversaries are deliberately developing systems and technologies designed to counter U.S. high-value assets such as satellites, air fields and aircraft carriers.
Potential adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran have studied U.S. military superiority and have been closing the gap, in part by fielding precision missiles able to threaten U.S. power projection capabilities.
For example, the Chinese military is developing a long-range anti-ship cruise missile, the DF-21D, said by analysts to have a range up to 900 nautical miles. While there is some speculation as to whether it could succeed in striking moving targets such as aircraft carriers, analysts have said the weapon is in part designed to keep carriers from operating closer to the coastline.
“Some countries, China particularly, but also Russia and others, are clearly developing sophisticated weapons designed to defeat our power-projection forces. Even if war with the U.S. is unlikely or unintended, it is quite obvious to me that the foreign investments I see in military modernization have the objective of enabling the countries concerned to deter and defeat a regional intervention by the U.S. military,” said Kendall in a written statement to the committee.
The U.S. relies on high-value assets such as airfields, aircraft carriers and space-based satellites, for intelligence, targeting, communication and the ability to project power, Kendall said. These assets could potentially be targeted by high-tech, long-range precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, Kendall explained.
Large numbers of accurate, technologically advanced missiles such as this could potentially get through the best of current U.S. air defense systems, Kendall said.
“We have been doing some things to try to address the problem. This is a serious problem for the country. It is not just missiles it is other things such as electronic warfare capability, anti-satellite capability – a number of things which I think that are being developed very consciously to defeat the American way of projecting power. We need to respond to that,” Kendall said.