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Adios, Top Gun: The End of the Fighter Jet?

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Adios, Top Gun: The End of the Fighter Jet?

Maverick and Goose would be terribly unhappy with this new CSBA study.

Adios, Top Gun: The End of the Fighter Jet?
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Is the old dichotomy between fighter jets and bombers becoming obsolete in air forces across the world? Yes, according to a new study, which argues small and highly maneuverable air-to-air combat planes may indeed be on their slow way out to be replaced by a new multi-role, stealthy, long-range aircraft the size of a bomber.

Yesterday, Breaking Defense reported on a new provocative paper, “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat – Implications for Future Air Superiority,” which analyzed “over 1,450 air-to-air victories” in the last 50 years across the globe. The report concluded that new technology “has fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.”

“Aircraft performance attributes essential for success in air-to-air combat during the gun and early missile eras such as high speed, good acceleration, and maneuverability are much less useful now that aircraft can be detected and engaged from dozens of miles away,” according to John Stillion, who is a former U.S. Air Force officer and a fellow at the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments.

The paper notes that superior situational awareness (SA) still holds the key to victory in aerial combat. “The building blocks, however, of superior SA, information acquisition and information denial, seem to be increasingly associated with sensors, signature reduction, and networks,” Stillion argues in the study.

“Looking forward, these changes have greatly increased the proportion of BVR [beyond visual range] engagements and likely reduced the utility of traditional fighter aircraft attributes, such as speed and maneuverability, in aerial combat,” he continues.

The most provocative observation is the following:

The increased importance of electronic sensors, signature reduction, RF [radio frequency] and IR [infra-red] countermeasures and robust LOS networks in building dominant SA [situational awareness], and the potential reduced tactical utility of high speed and maneuverability could mean that, for the first time, the aerial combat lethality of large combat aircraft may be competitive or even superior to more traditional fighter aircraft designs emphasizing speed and maneuverability.


[I]t is possible that the desirable attributes of future air-to-air platforms may be converging with those of long-range ISR/strike platforms, or that at least large aircraft with good low observable (LO) characteristics may be able to give a good account of themselves in aerial combat. If this is true, then a sixth-generation “fighter” may have a platform that is similar to a future “bomber” and may even be a modified version of a bomber airframe or the same aircraft with its payload optimized for the air-to-air mission.

What are the implications of this? According to the author, the Pentagon needs “to cast a much wider net in the development of future air combat operational concepts, sensors, weapons, and platforms, which would include examining ‘radical’ departures from traditional fighter concepts that rely on enhanced sensor performance, signature control, networks to achieve superior SA, and very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked by enemy aircraft.”

Breaking Defense quotes a defense industry insider who thinks that Stillion’s analysis is spot on:

Why invest in the sixth generation fighter to create a ‘super F-22′?  Such an aircraft will only offer marginal improvements over the F-22 at great cost. But it will still be fairly short-ranged (at least considering the operational distances in the Pacific and other theaters).  Wouldn’t it be better instead to focus on a bigger aircraft?

The insider could envision a future fleet of around 400 bomber-like multi-role aircraft constituting the core of America’s airpower in the 21st century: “What I find most compelling is the idea that we could develop a single, large, long-range, big payload, stealthy aircraft that would comprise the future United States Air Force’s combat arm.”

Perhaps the new long-range strike bomber (LRS-B) program (see: “What Do We Know About the US Air Force’s New Bomber?”) could be the nucleus of such a future force. The design and capabilities of the new bomber remain unknown, outside of some obvious characteristics: the bomber is purported to have stealth capability, to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, and will, in all likelihood, be optionally manned.