Defining the Next Air Superiority Platform

The next air superiority platform—the Penetrating Counter Air aircraft—is “not a fighter,” insists the Air Force officer whose team came up with the concept, but will rather be a key flying sensor platform with lots of weapons and long range that will enable USAF’s existing fighters.

Brig. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, Deputy Director for Global Operations on the Joint Staff, who just a year ago headed up USAF’s enterprise capability collaboration team effort on Next-Generation Air Dominance, speaking at a joint Mitchell Institute/“War on the Rocks” symposium said the ECCT deliberately avoided using terms like “fighter” or “F-X” in its study of what’s needed to achieve air superiority in 2030, not wanting to prejudice the outcome.

This new aircraft is needed to penetrate enemy air defenses and keep all the other fighters relevant, he said, calling it mainly a sensor platform but one that could “finish” enemy targets “as long as it’s in the area anyway.”

Col. Tom Coglitore, who succeeded Grynkewich and is now the lead for Air Superiority 2030 concept development, said the PCA concept is six months into an 18-month analysis of alternatives that will refine the platform’s attributes, under the budgetary program element “Next Generation Air dominance.” He added that the PCA’s missions will include air escort, fighter sweep, suppression of enemy air defenses, and defensive counter-air. It fills a “gap” identified in the late 2020s that neither the F-22 nor F-35 can adequately fill, Coglitore said, and it will “enable the joint force” as well.

Grynkewich said the long range is necessary to both permit basing beyond the range of enemy ballistic or cruise missiles, and to allow “persistence” in the target area.

The sensors onboard will also provide coordinates for standoff weapons. The sensors and the ability to target for standoff weapons are “the key pieces” of what the PCA is all about, Grynkewich asserted. While there may be some overlap with the Strategic Capabilities Office “arsenal plane” concept, they’re not the same and will likely fulfill different roles, he added.

Jeff Saling, who was the analysis lead for Air Superiority 2030, said it’s not a certainty the PCA will have directed energy weapons. DE has “a lot of promise” due to its potential “deep magazine” of shots, but Saling said the program wouldn’t be held up to wait for them. DE weapons would “have to deliver” to earn their way on the platform, and will be considered not only for their combat utility but in the context of logistics support, as well.

“I want directed energy as soon as I can get it and as soon as it works,” Grynkewich summed up. He also said future efforts at advancing air superiority will have to be a series of very rapid incremental improvements, because without them, “you’ll fall behind.”