4th generation again. Hypothetical replacement for the F-16 and F-35 for the United States Air Force

The F-16C fighter is a massive but outdated fighter. Photo Wikimedia Commons

In mid-February, US Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles K. Brown, criticized the current state of American tactical aviation. He called the most massive F-16 fighters of various modifications at the moment obsolete and in need of replacement, and the promising F-35s were criticized due to technical problems and high prices. In this regard, there was a proposal to develop a new aircraft, devoid of the shortcomings of the existing technology.

Problems and solutions

The US Air Force has nearly 1,100 F-16C / D fighters at its disposal. This technique was built and transferred in parts until the middle of the two thousandth, after which serial production focused on the fulfillment of export contracts, and in the interests of the Pentagon, only the modernization of equipment was carried out. Several years ago it was decided to resume production; now the last modification of the technique is being produced.

C. Brown noted that the process of further improvement of the F-16 aircraft no longer makes sense. The fact is that this aircraft, even in the latest modifications, retains an outdated architecture that limits the ability to update hardware and software. Such technical features do not meet the current requirements of the Air Force.

As a direct replacement for the F-16, the promising F-35 was created, however, it is not without its drawbacks. This machine is prohibitively expensive to manufacture and operate, encounters technical problems and limitations, etc. At the same time, several hundred of the latest F-35s have been put into operation, and the approved plans provide for the creation of a fleet of more than 1,700 aircraft.

F-22A after repair and modernization, November 2020 Photo by US Air Force

The Air Force headquarters proposes to revise plans for the future and explore the possibility of creating a new aircraft, taking into account the shortcomings of existing machines and more profitable in all respects. According to General Brown, such a sample would belong to the “4+” or “5-” generation. It is curious that we are talking about a return to the previous generation – the development of new samples of the 4th generation has not been remembered for several decades.

The Air Force plans to conduct a study of the needs and capabilities of tactical aviation, based on the results of which the terms of reference for a promising fighter can be formed. The TacAir study will be carried out in conjunction with the Pentagon’s regulatory authorities, which will determine the optimal appearance of the aircraft, not only from a technical, but also from an economic point of view.

Customer wishes

TacAir’s research work is in its earliest stages and the results remain unknown. However, Ch. Brown in mid-February revealed not only the shortcomings of the available aircraft, but also the wishes for a promising model. Perhaps these ideas will be further developed and even included in the finished terms of reference.

According to the general, the new aircraft should differ from the F-16 in increased combat effectiveness. He must quickly go to a given area and complete the task, using modern technologies. Speed ​​statements may indicate the need for a completely new high performance platform. In particular, the ability to fly supersonic without the use of afterburner can be useful. At the same time, it should be simpler than the F-22 and F-35 aircraft so that the cost of the project remains at an acceptable level.

Serial fighter F-35A. Photo by US Air Force

A significant drawback of older aircraft is the closed architecture of the electronics and software. Promising fighters should be able to relatively quickly update programs, incl. just before departure. Moreover, the US Air Force recently experimented with the concept of Open-mission systems. In this case, the software update is carried out as quickly as possible and can be performed at any time, even during the flight to the target.

Other technical requests have not yet been announced. Remained unknown thoughts of the command of the Air Force about the required composition of electronic equipment, weapons, etc. Perhaps such details will be disclosed later, as the research work is carried out – and after the start of the development of a hypothetical project.

Past generation

Formally, the US Air Force already has two fighters of the last 5th generation – these are the F-22A and F-35 of various modifications, developed by Lockheed Martin. At the same time, such aircraft are far from fully meeting the expectations and advertising materials of the past. They still have high operating costs, technical problems, etc.

Excessive cost at one time forced the Pentagon to sharply cut plans for the construction of the F-22A, as a result of which such aircraft could not replace the cash F-15 of the previous generation. Right now, similar problems are being observed when trying to replace old F-16s with new F-35s. At the same time, tactical aviation needs further development, which has to be carried out not only through the construction of aircraft of the latest generation, but also through the modernization of previous models.

The design appearance of the F-21 aircraft is a modification of the F-16V for the Indian tender. Lockheed Martin Graphics

The development of the F-16 fighter continues to this day. In 2015, flight tests of the prototype F-16V Viper began with a cardinal update of the electronic components. It was proposed both the construction of new machines of this type, and the modernization of existing ones with the use of new equipment. The F-16V has already been the subject of several export orders.

At the same time, the Pentagon does not plan to buy such equipment or order the modernization of the existing fleet to the Viper version. The reasons for this were outlined by General Brown: for all its advantages, the envisaged replacement of equipment does not solve typical problems and does not allow obtaining a sufficient reserve for the future.

At the same time, the US Air Force plans to purchase deeply modernized new-built F-15EX fighters, with the help of which they will replace the outdated F-15C in the foreseeable future. The EX project provides for the replacement of key elements of the avionics and ensuring compatibility with new weapons and suspended equipment. All these measures provide a sharp increase in combat qualities in comparison with aircraft of previous modifications.

The Pentagon openly declares that purchases of the F-15EX are related to the termination of production of modern F-22A, the limited remaining resource of the F-15C / D cash and the backlog in the F-35 program. The use of a ready-made platform equipped with new equipment is expected to cover the needs of the Air Force for the next few years. At the same time, it is noted that by the end of the decade, the F-15EX will no longer meet some of the requirements: the outdated platform will make it vulnerable to the air defense systems of the future.

Fifth to fourth

Thus, experiencing difficulties with rearmament for the new 5th generation of fighters, the US Air Force is forced to return to the previous 4th generation. Aircraft of this generation still form the backbone of tactical aviation, and this situation is not even foreseen to change. First of all, this is due to the insufficient production of the F-22A and the limited pace of construction of newer F-35s of all modifications.

4th generation again.  Hypothetical replacement for the F-16 and F-35 for the United States Air Force

Assembly of the first F-15EX aircraft. Photo by US Air Force

In such a situation, the obvious solution aimed at increasing the combat capability of the Air Force is to modernize the available fleet. It is also possible to purchase additional aircraft of old types in new versions. Both of these methods are already actively used, but they do not allow making plans for the distant future.

In the near future, the US Air Force may use a third method of updating tactical aviation in the form of creating and launching production of a completely new fighter belonging to the previous generation or occupying an intermediate position between the fourth and fifth. Against the background of previous events and high-profile statements, such a proposal looks extremely interesting, and in addition, it may hit the reputation of the United States as a leading aviation power.

It should be noted that so far we are talking only about research work to study and substantiate the possibility of creating a new aircraft of the “4+” or “5-” generations. It is still a long way from design work and the start of construction, and during this time, much, including the plans of the command, can change. However, the ratio of modern and obsolete technology in the Air Force, most likely, will not change and will remain a cause for the most serious concern.

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