US Mulls Fighter Jet Future
Image Credit: US Air Force

US Mulls Fighter Jet Future


Despite uncertainties regarding the current generation of advanced fighter aircraft, the US Air Force is proceeding with the development of the next generation, slated to enter service sometime after 2030.

The new fighter could represent a fresh approach to warplane design for the world’s leading air power. Today’s emphasis on radar evasion could give way to a broader focus on energy efficiency, which in turn could facilitate new weapons and other capabilities. For that reason, Dr. Mark Maybury, the Air Force’s top scientist, refers to the new fighter as a ‘More-Electric Aircraft.’

Today the Air Force is investing heavily in F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, both types manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The last of 187 F-22s will roll out of Lockheed’s Georgia facility later this year. Production is just getting underway in Texas and Georgia on as many as 1,763 Air Force F-35s.

The F-22, tailored for aerial combat, costs more than $300 million per copy, once developmental spending is factored in. The ground attack F-35 is slightly cheaper, though by how much remains unclear at this stage in the programme.

Both jets have been vexed by mechanical problems. The F-22 force is currently grounded following a fatal crash possibly tied to the F-22’s onboard oxygen-generation system. The 20-strong F-35 test fleet is also grounded owing to problems with an internal electrical generator.

Budgetary pressure curtailed F-22 production and could also reduce the F-35 buy, despite the recent appearance of rival stealth fighter designs from Russia and China. Japan is also working on a stealthy design.

Perhaps motivated by the Russian and Chinese developments, the Air Force is already refining its concept for the fighter after the F-22 and F-35. The so-called ‘F-X’ remains an unfunded, largely informal programme with no prospect of production before 2030. Most of the work on the new plane is being carried out by the Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL) under Maybury’s direction.

Two separate research initiatives underpin the evolving F-X concept and help explain Maybury’s ‘More-Electric Aircraft’ descriptor. AFRL is working on a new aircraft electrical infrastructure that's loosely modelled on commercial hybrid car designs. A plane incorporating hybrid-style electrical systems wouldn’t need the bulky, sluggish hydraulic systems installed in current airplanes and could be more efficient. The change could help the Air Force reduce its fuel consumption, currently averaging around 2.5 billion gallons a year.

Also, with more and better electrical power, the More-Electric Aircraft could include laser and microwave weapons and more powerful sensors, potentially including the ability to launch ‘electronic attacks’ by jamming or inserting software viruses into enemy radars.

To power the More-Electric Aircraft’s electrical systems, AFRL is pursuing a new type of jet engine. This advanced propulsion represents the other research initiative for the new fighter. It would be a ‘combined cycle’ engine meant to be equally efficient for low-speed cruising and high-speed sprints – a feat impossible for today’s power plants. An effective combined-cycle engine could result in performance and efficiency benefits on top of those offered by the new electrical systems.

Currently, AFRL spends around $300 million a year developing the electrical systems and combined-cycle engine that underpin the More-Electric Aircraft. That sum will undoubtedly increase as both initiatives gain momentum and the F-X slowly evolves into a formal programme. Whether, and at what point, the cost causes a backlash by a deficit-conscious US government remains to be seen.

The Air Force will eventually need a new fighter to succeed the current planes. Maybury is betting that his More-Electric Aircraft will fill this F-X niche, but other prospects are sure to emerge in time. By the same token, the United States’ long-term fighter plan, itself partially a response to Russian and Chinese developments, is sure to prompt responses by Moscow and Beijing. For sure, both countries have proved that they’re determined to follow where the US Air Force leads. 

August 11, 2011 at 22:32

“The F-22, tailored for aerial combat, costs more than $300 million per copy, once developmental spending is factored in.”…. of course, if you only build 187 but…

“the marginal cost of buying one additional [F-22] aircraft has come down to (just!) $138 million, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that a larger order of 70 additional aircraft could have brought that number down to $70 million a pop.”

Leonard R.
August 10, 2011 at 04:26

Drones, cyber-warfare, anti-sat weaponry, anti-missile defense systems and lots & lots of missiles is what the US will need in the coming decade. It should ramp up missile production.

Fighter jets are not as important right now. They may become important. But the US should first focus on the most important systems for the near horizon.

David Axe
August 10, 2011 at 03:26

Hey Stephen,

No, I understand that Maybury was referring a broad evolutionary process rather than a singular warplane design. But it’s clear he wants F-X to be a More Electric Aircraft. For the Air Force, in fighter terms, a more pure MEA and F-X could turn out to be synonymous.

Nice to hear from you, anyways. Your work is indispensable for me.


August 9, 2011 at 14:10

Good start. Having them be able to fly between outer space and Earth’s airspace would be better. Probably nuclear powered – not saying a nuclear reactor but, perhaps radiation based (solar, wind, etc). Seems to me space is the next fight as is under water. Anything that can be seen will be gone.

The biggest thing is developing a new power source, engine, or storage for power for weapons. We get that down and we can make whatever we want.

August 9, 2011 at 11:53

This article misunderstands the whole point of Dr. Maybury’s presentation, which I attended, and aerospace technology trends of the last decade and a half. More-electric aircraft does not refer to the F-X. It’s a term that has been applied to almost every new military and commercial aircraft that has emerged in the last 15 years, including the A380, 787, F-35 and, most recently, the KC-390. All it means is that flight controls are powered by some level of electricity rather than purely hydraulics or pneumatics. If F-X ever comes into existence, it likely will be more than a more-electric airplane.

August 9, 2011 at 08:46

It absolutely makes sense to concentrate on fuel efficiency…

As the wars of the future will all be about oil, the army that can secure the most and use the least will surely prosper.

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