As the Air Force mulls what a sixth generation air superiority capability will look like, planners should not assume the solution will resemble a fifth generation fighter, said CSBA Senior Fellow John Stillion on Tuesday during a talk sponsored by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Everything has to earn its way onto the airplane,” he said, noting that each attribute would have “costs and benefits.” With the development of better sensors and missiles, speed has diminished in its importance in air-to-air combat, and platform agility does little against more accurate longer range missiles in many cases, said Stillion during his presentation in Arlington, Va. He noted that building a maneuverable fighter requires more engineering to survive higher stresses, which takes away payload, and supersonic speeds can give aircraft higher infrared signatures due to increased heat. “Is the day of the big warplane about to arrive?” he asked rhetorically. If beyond visual range is the prevailing form of aerial combat now, perhaps a future solution involves platforms with more space for “multi-phenomenology” sensors, weapons, and networks, said Stillion. A large platform is better able to host directed-energy weapons as well, he said.
U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s regularly deploy deep into the Pacific region from Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii. In the future, though, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would like to see the Air Force permanently station fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line—closer to China.