Earlier this week, Russia officially unveiled amid much media attention its secret new fighter jet named “Checkmate,” or sometimes referred to now as the Su-75, at the MAKS-2021 air show in Moscow.
Checkmate indeed possesses all of the hallmarks of an impressive next-generation aircraft that can potentially hunt down the US Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. But is that really the endgame?
Foreign export market
According to defense writer David Axe at Forbes, Rostec, the parent company of Russian plane manufacturer Sukhoi, will likely make Sukhoi’s new Checkmate fighter jet available to the foreign market.
In fact, Rostec’s recent teaser video for the jet “features actors portraying pilots from Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates.”
He continued: “It’s obvious why Russia would want a fighter like Checkmate that can shoot down the United States’ own top fighters. It’s less clear that Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates want the same thing. Here’s the rub. Without financing from foreign countries, there’s probably no way Checkmate gets built. But the fighter’s design might not appeal to the very buyers Moscow needs to make the project viable. And that would leave in the cold the one customer – the Russian air force – that might actually have a requirement for a fighter like Checkmate.”
Axe also cited Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author, who described the Checkmate as “a pig in a poke.”
“The actual question is who is going to buy that pig in a poke?” he asked.
As reported in Popular Mechanics, the Checkmate comes with an “unusually pointy nose and an engine intake below the cockpit,” in addition to an “internal weapons bay designed to preserve its anti-radar shaping and can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance, including both infrared- and radar-guided air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, guided and unguided bombs, and unguided rockets.”
Boasting a hefty price tag of $25 million to $30 million, the first Checkmate is expected to take flight in 2023, and the actual deliveries of combat-ready planes could start as early as 2026.
A big problem
Another reason to fast-track the new jet to the foreign export market is the fact that Russia can barely afford to finance the Su-57 program, which, all said and done, could potentially end up costing tens of billions of dollars.
“This Checkmate is facing exactly the same obstacles as the Su-57,” Cooper said.
“The Russian government … has no money to complete its development and get it into series production,” he continued.
Sukhoi Su-57 is a stealth-capable fighter jet that is the outcome of the Russian Air Force’s PAK FA fifth-generation fighter jet program. The single-seat, twin-engine aircraft offers a supersonic range of more than 1,500 kilometers, which is more than two times the range of the Su-27 fighter.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.
On July 13, TASS did a short report on what is expected to be the new Russian aircraft. TASS directly stated that the new jet would compete with the F-35, quoting Executive Director of Aviaport Aviation News Agency Oleg Panteleyev.
Panteleyev said that this is also the main reason why the teaser of the new design, released by Rostec, has been published in English. Rosoboronexport, as Panteleyev said, has invited over 120 delegations from 65 countries of the world to the aerospace show.
This suggests that this year’s edition of MAKS may be export-focused, with a significant emphasis placed on the promotion of the new aircraft.
It remains unclear whether the airframe is a prototype or just a mock-up.
The characteristics of the jet are also somewhat cryptic. TASS claims the jet would feature low RCS, high thrust-to-weight ratio, advanced weapons and significant payload – these are somewhat generic descriptors, usually assigned to most of the 5th-generation, or wannabe-5th-generation multirole combat aircraft.
The premiere is scheduled to take place on the first day of the MAKS show in Zhukovskiy – July 20, 2021. The Aviationist will have two correspondents on site and will probably be able to provide additional details on the new stealthy aircraft.
The shape seems to be (loosely) similar to the one of the YF-23.
According to some analysts, the new aircraft has been developed by the Sukhoi bureau. Based on the hashtags used on social media and images released so far the new type could be named “Checkmate.”
We may be dealing with an export product, modeled after the Su-57 Felon, but made cheaper to operate than the first of the Russian stealthy fighter aircraft.
Yesterday Rostec released an ad teasing the jet, also pointing to the export profile of the design, suggesting UAE, India, Vietnam and Argentina might be potential customers.
We have also noted that one of the pilots, in the last shot of the video, is wearing an American flight suit.
Still, for now, we know little about the jet, hence everybody needs to wait for it to be officially unveiled during MAKS 2021.
It is symptomatic, however, that Russia follows the footsteps of the US, creating a tandem of fifth-generation platforms. This may be viewed as an analogy of the US F-22/F-35 duo, with the Raptor being a counterpart of the Su-57, and Lighting being a counterpart of the new, lighter, single-engine design.
Panteleyev seemingly confirmed this, saying that the new, lighter design would be an answer to tactical problems.
The long-delayed sequel to “Top Gun” is slated for November 2021, and promotion for “Top Gun: Maverick” is starting to pick up as the release date approaches.
Paramount Pictures partnered with the YouTube show “Could You Survive the Movies?” for an interview with director Joseph Kosinski about how his crew pushed the technological envelope to create the movie’s in-flight action scenes.
The new clip is an addition to the “Could You Survive the Movies?” episode that explores the science behind the original 1986 movie. Series host Jake Roper joined Kosinski for the conversation highlighted in the new clip.
Kosinski reveals that he studied to be an aerospace engineer before getting into the filmmaking game. That makes sense because the director behind sci-fi movies such as “TRON: Legacy” and “Oblivion” always has shown a bent for cutting-edge movie technology.
To help the actors get their performances right, the crew built a replica of an F-18 Super Hornet cockpit on the ground, and Kosinski rehearsed each scene with the actors before they did the actual scene inside a jet screaming across the sky.
Since the team was inventing new ways to film airborne action, the process could be incredibly slow.
“Some days, we’d work a 16-hour day and get 40 seconds of footage; 25 cameras running simultaneous,” Kosinski reveals to Roper in the clip.
The big reveal in the interview is that cinematographer Claudio Miranda worked with Sony to develop a new camera system called the Rialto, which is an add-on to Sony’s popular Venice 6k camera. Kosinski says they captured the footage using six Rialtos on each plane, with four cameras facing the actor and two cameras facing forward.
The images featured in the video suggest a kind of hybrid setup, because it looks like at least two Venice units are included in the four-camera array that’s facing the actors. The Venices are definitely too large to be connected to the front-facing cameras.
The Rialto comes with a 9-foot cable that allows it to connect to a Venice unit, so it looks like the filmmakers figured out places to stash the Venice units around the plane.
Even though the photos make the Venice look like a monster piece of gear, the unit weighs only 8.6 pounds and the Rialto extension units weigh 3-4 pounds. To anyone who lugged around digital cameras when they first arrived on the market, this will seem like impossible news. Welcome to the future.
You can play with this tech yourself if you’ve got the cash or qualify for Sony’s interest-free financing. A Venice body retails for $42,000, and a Rialto starts around $12K. Then you need lenses and all the other rigging. You can get started for around $65,000, but $100K would give you a ton of options.
You can watch the entire interview for yourself below.
The US Air Force has two air-superiority fighters in their stable in the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, but when looking to bolster the fleet with purchases of a new (old) jet for the job, it was the Eagle, not the famed Raptor, to get a second lease on life.
That really begs the question: If America can buy new F-15s, a design that’s nearly 50 years old, why isn’t it looking to build new F-22s instead?
By most accounting, the F-22 Raptor remains the most capable air-superiority fighter on the planet, with its competition in China’s J-20B beginning to shape up and Russia’s Su-57 still lagging a bit behind.
The F-22 really is still at the top of its game … but that doesn’t mean building more actually makes good sense.
The F-22 and F-35 are fighters with 2 very different jobs
While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely seen as the most technologically advanced fighter in the sky, it was designed as a sort of continuation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s multi-purpose architecture, with an emphasis placed on conducting air-to-ground operations.
The older F-22 Raptor was intended to serve as a replacement instead for the legendary F-15 Eagle, as the nation’s top-of-the-line dogfighter.
While both the F-22 and F-35 are 5th-generation jets that leverage stealth to enable mission accomplishment and both are able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat operations, they each specialize in a different aspect of air combat and were intended to serve in very different roles.
America will undoubtedly be flying F-35s for decades to come, but it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that the F-35 will replace the F-16 as the Air Force’s workhorse platform.
The F-22 was canceled because America didn’t need a stealth air-superiority fighter for the War on Terror
The Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 F-22s to develop a robust fleet of stealth interceptors for the 21st century. But as the United States found itself further entrenched in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations against technologically inferior opponents, the need for advanced dogfighters became far less pressing.
With ongoing combat operations in multiple theaters to fund, the F-22 program was shut down in December 2011 with just 186 fighters delivered. Today, nearly a decade later, the F-22 exists in precious few numbers, despite its fearsome reputation.
Now the United States faces concerns about its dwindling fleet of F-22 Raptors that were once intended to replace the F-15 outright. Only around 130 of those 186 delivered F-22s were ever operational, and today the number of combat-ready F-22s is likely in the double digits.
With no new Raptors to replenish the fleet as older jets age out, each hour an F-22 flies anywhere in the world is now one hour closer to the world’s best dogfighter’s retirement.
The future of the Air Force, as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has plainly stated, doesn’t include the mighty Raptor. But America needs an air superiority fighter that can stand and swing with the best in the world, and as capable as the F-15EX Eagle II may be, it lacks the stealth it would need to survive an open war with a nation like China or Russia.
With the NGAD program still years away from producing an operational fighter, America’s air-superiority mission now runs the risk of not having the jets it needs for a high-end fight if one were to break out – as unlikely as that may be.
The production facilities and supply chain for the F-22 were cannibalized for the F-35
As simple as just building new F-22s may sound, the truth is, re-starting the F-22 production line would likely cost the same or potentially even more than simply developing an entirely new and potentially better fighter.
Lockheed Martin cannibalized a great deal of the F-22’s production infrastructure to support the ongoing production of the F-35, meaning it wouldn’t be as simple as just re-opening the plants that had previously built Raptors.
In fact, Lockheed Martin would have to approach building new F-22s as though it was an entirely new enterprise, which is precisely why the United States didn’t look into purchasing new F-22s rather than the controversial new (old) F-15EX.
Boeing’s new F-15s are considered fourth-generation fighters that are sorely lacking in stealth when compared to advanced fighters like the F-22 and F-35, but the Air Force has agreed to purchase new F-15s at a per-unit price that even exceeds new F-35 orders.
Why? There are a number of reasons, but chief among them are operational costs (the F-15 is far cheaper per flight hour than either the F-35 or the F-22), and immediate production capability. Boeing has already been building advanced F-15s for American allies in nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, so standing up a new production line for the United States comes with relatively little cost.
The F-22’s production line, on the other hand, hasn’t existed in nearly a decade.
In a report submitted to Congress in 2017, it was estimated that restarting F-22 production would cost the United States $50 billion just to procure 194 more fighters.
That breaks down to between $206 and $216 million per fighter, as compared to the F-35’s current price of around $80 million per airframe and the F-15EX’s per-unit price of approximately $88 million.
Does that mean it’s impossible to build new F-22s? Of course not. With enough money, anything is possible – but as estimated costs rise, the question becomes: Is it practical? And the answer to that question seems to be an emphatic no.
The US Air Force has invested a comparatively tiny $9 billion into its own Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program – aimed at developing a replacement for the F-22 – over the span of six years (2019-2025).
If the new NGAD fighter enters service on schedule, it may even get to fly alongside the F-22 before it heads out to pasture. So while the Raptor’s reign as king of the skies may soon come to an end, it may not be before America has a new contender for the title.
As a fighter pilot, I have a lot of respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished. His ability to not adhere to dogma has allowed him to revolutionize two industries through SpaceX and Tesla.
Much like a physicist, he relies on first-principle science to solve problems, which allows him to see things from a fresh perspective. However, he is wrong about the fighter jet era being over.
“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.
“It’s not that I want the future to be this. That’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”
As a fighter pilot, my job is to not fall in love with the aircraft I fly, but to use it as a tool to accomplish a mission. We are constantly looking for ways to optimize our lethality while minimizing risk.
If there is a better way to accomplish a mission, then it is our duty to use it. While I agree with Elon Musk that the future is drone warfare, I think we’re a lifetime away from seeing a fully autonomous Air Force.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have fundamentally altered the way we train and fight. I’ve integrated with them extensively over my career and seen first-hand how valuable they are.
Their persistence is unmatched – an MQ-9B recently flew for nearly 2 days without having to refuel. The sensors they carry are equally impressive, due to the weight savings from not having to keep a pilot alive. Perhaps most important, though, is that they don’t put human lives at risk.
It’s important to understand that these UAVs are not autonomous – there is someone, usually half a world away, controlling every move by the aircraft. They are a lot more, in effect, like scaled-up radio-control aircraft than they are like robots.
As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective.
As Elon Musk is finding out, making an autonomous vehicle is incredibly difficult. While Tesla’s autopilot can navigate reasonably well on highways, they have a much harder time in the city. There are so many edge cases (problems that only occur under extreme circumstances) involved in city driving that are nearly impossible to predict.
When several of these one-in-a-thousand events happen simultaneously, the car’s autonomous software becomes overwhelmed. Remember, these cars are operating in a highly regulated environment where the rules are clearly defined.
Combat is the most dynamic environment imaginable. The fog and friction of war prevent a full understanding of the battlefield.
In addition, the enemy is specifically targeting your weaknesses. Teslas don’t have to fight state actors that are specifically trying to make them crash.
Imagine a city that is more like “Mad Max,” where there are adversaries painting street lines into telephone poles and shining lasers into the car’s cameras – they wouldn’t go a block without being disabled.
The same is true for an autonomous drone – it not only has to be able to make decisions on its own, but it must overcome an adversary that is specifically targeting its weaknesses.
And that is where the human brain thrives-coming up with dynamic and creative solutions to undefined problems.
The current Venn Diagram of manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities is so far apart that neither is close to being replaced. The future is finding ways for both to operate as seamlessly as possible.
Of all the fighters in China’s arsenal, none are as important as the J-20.
The fifth-generation fighter also known as the “Mighty Dragon” is more than just a stealth fighter. It’s an example that China, like the US, can build some of the best military technology in the world.
It has become a symbol for the Chinese Communist Party, shown proudly at military parades and mentioned repeatedly in Chinese defense publications.
After a brutal brawl with Indian troops on their disputed border last year, China sent two J-20s to airbases in Xinjiang.
That deployment was too small to be of any real strategic significance, but the fact that China deployed its best fighter jet to a remote area in the Himalayas showed its seriousness. The J-20’s deployment to China’s Eastern Theatre Command is meant to send a similar message to Taiwan, Japan, and the US.
But the J-20, like all Chinese aircraft, has been hobbled by a lack of efficient and durable, high-performance jet engines.
That problem has plagued China’s defense industry for a long time, and it’s one Beijing is working hard to fix.
It’s also no secret that China is skilled at reverse-engineering foreign technology to make domestic copies. Virtually every Chinese fighter jet is based on stolen or reverse-engineered designs.
There is precedent for reverse-engineering jet engines, but while China has plenty of access to Russian jet engines, Beijing’s attempts to produce its own domestic designs have been largely unsuccessful.
One of its earliest versions of a domestically designed engine, the WS-10A, regularly broke down after just 30 hours of use.
There are many reasons for these failures. First, Russia is aware China has stolen its intellectual property before and is reluctant to sell Beijing its best engines. Moscow also doesn’t sell standalone engines, instead including them on existing jets, which makes copying them difficult.
Second, reverse-engineering skill don’t easily translate into proficiency at developing new jet engines from scratch. That requires technological know-how that takes years of intensive learning to develop and generations to perfect.
“There are a few technologies that are really at the apex of technological manufacturing,” and jet engines are one of them, Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.
“These high-end technologies are so difficult to master that very few countries succeed. Many have failed,” Heath added.
The main difficulty lies in the metallurgy and machining. A single engine on a civilian Boeing 747 airliner, for example, has at least 40,000 parts. Temperatures in that engine can reach as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and its fan blades can spin well over 3,000 times a minute during an hours-long flight.
Blueprints for such an engine can be copied, but the secrets to producing and shaping metal parts that can withstand those temperatures and spin at such tremendous RPM over thousands of hours – not to mention external factors like wind resistance and corrosion – without breaking aren’t easy to find.
Another disadvantage for China is that the entities tasked with developing these complex machines are state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Historically speaking, SOEs struggle with innovation and developing cutting-edge technology. The reliance on reverse-engineering shows that this is the case with China, though there are certainly exceptions.
“They’re better at just reverse-engineering simpler components and building simpler things,” Heath said. “All this requires a level of expertise and competence that SOEs just often are not very good at. You have to recognize the limitations of the SOEs in China when it comes to innovation.”
‘Crucial technology cannot be bought’
China is more than aware of its engine problems.
Liu Daxiang, the deputy director of the science and technology committee at the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, last year called the development of domestic jet engines “a serious and urgent political task” and said China was facing an “unprecedented challenge.”
“The established countries in aviation have become more strict with us when it comes to technology access,” Liu said, adding that recent US efforts to restrict opportunities for Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei “tells us that crucial technology cannot be bought, even if you spend big.”
In an attempt to get direct access to the secrets of jet manufacturing, Chinese state-owned aviation firm Skyrizon, which has been blacklisted by the US government, tried to acquire a controlling stake in Motor Sich, a Ukrainian company that is one of the largest producers of engines for helicopters, jets, and missiles.
But the Ukrainian government this year stopped the deal, likely because of pressure from the US.
Despite the setbacks, China has made some progress. Modern variants of the WS-10 have progressed enough that some Chinese jets are being fitted with them, including a number of J-20s.
Chinese sources have said that the WS-15, an engine designed specifically for the J-20, “may be finished within one or two years” and that once those engines are installed, the J-20 will be “on a par” with the US’s fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Ballpoint pens, microchips, and jet engines
But many challenges remain. The complexity of the materials and metallurgy process, the costs of acquiring and maintaining the scientific and machining expertise, and the reluctance of other countries to assist China for fear of intellectual-property theft are but a few of them.
China faces a similar predicament in manufacturing high-end microchips and semiconductors. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars and major efforts by state-owned enterprises, China has not been able to create its own computer chips.
“It’s just that some of these technologies are extremely difficult to do, and it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it – if you don’t have the right combination of people, technologies, and skills, it’s just not going to come together so easily” Heath said.
But China doesn’t give up easily. In 2017, a Chinese state-owned firm announced plans to mass-produce ballpoint pen tips for the first time. China already made billions of pens, but only after a five-year, multimillion-dollar effort did it develop the technology to make tips for those pens domestically.
“All these elements can be reached only through long-term investment and incremental development,” a Chinese researcher said at the time.
The US Air Force just started taking delivery on the new F-15EX Eagle II in March of this year, but the jets already found their way into a massive force-on-force war game held in Alaska last month.
Thus far, only two F-15EXs have been delivered, and both saw action during the exercises.
The war game, dubbed Northern Edge ’21, saw the new F-15EX integrating with the older air-superiority workhorse F-15Cs they’re slated to replace, as well as the fighter’s fifth-generation counterparts in the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
It also accompanied F-15E, or Strike Eagles, which are versions of the famed fighter designed specifically for air-to-ground engagements. The two F-15EXs flew alongside a force of as many as 50 jets as they closed with and engaged an aggressor force of similar size and capability.
“Northern Edge is an essential event for operational tests,” said Col. Ryan Messer, 53rd Wing commander.
“It is one of only a handful of exercises that combine great power competition-level threat complexities with the joint interoperability necessary to realistically inform our test data.”
Officially, the Air Force has not released any figures to indicate how well the newest fourth-generation fighter performed, but they did acknowledge that the F-15EXs both successfully shot down opponents and took losses themselves over the course of some 33 sorties during April and May.
The intent wasn’t to see if the F-15EX could dominate in an air-to-air environment, so much as to throw America’s airpower assets into a realistic approximation of a fight with a highly capable near-peer opponent like China.
That means the new F-15s weren’t just hunting down other fourth-generation jets in their air-superiority role, but likely also had to contend with low-observable or stealth platforms among their opponents.
“If you go into any large force exercise and you come back with everybody – with no blue losses – I would probably say that your threat is not as robust as it needs to be, in order to get the learning,” Lt. Col. John O’Rear of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron said.
O’Rear would not offer details into the incidents in which the F-15EXs were notionally shot down, but he did offer a little insight into the types of threats the new fourth-generation fighter was unable to counter.
In what should come as little surprise, the Eagle II seemed to suffer at the hands of attacks from significant distances, where its lack of stealth likely made it easy pickings for low-observable jets. If that was the case, the F-15EX was almost certainly not alone in this failing.
“In this kind of environment, most of your blue ‘deaths’ are probably going to be outside of visual range, just because of the threat we’re replicating,” he explained.
A lack of stealth can make a fighter far more susceptible to these beyond-visual-range attacks, where aircraft and air-defense systems can identify a fighter on radar and launch a missile at it well before the two opponents can actually see one another.
Missiles often travel at speeds faster than five times that of a combat aircraft, making them challenging to react to, let alone outmaneuver. This vulnerability to attack is one of the biggest arguments in favor of an all-stealth fleet of fighters that grew to prominence after the Air Force chose to order new F-15EXs.
But as headlines that followed have since demonstrated, America’s only in-production stealth fighter, the F-35, is extremely expensive to operate and still has a number of issues to be worked out, making it not only a poor fiscal choice, but even a bad tactical one for many missions.
In order to have the amount of firepower the Air Force needs at a cost it can afford, the branch will be forced to operate stealth and non-stealth aircraft in conjunction with one another for decades to come.
While practically all modern fighters are considered “multi-role,” or able to handle both air-to-air and air-to-ground engagements with varying degrees of expertise, each jet has a specific role its intended to excel in.
The F-15C and F-15EX, along with the stealthy F-22, are all considered air-superiority fighters, or aircraft that specialize in engaging other fighters. The F-15E and, to a slightly lesser extent, the F-35 are both aircraft that specialize in engaging ground targets.
The F-35, often referred to as a “quarterback in the sky” by pilots, is also often tasked with managing the battlespace, using its onboard computing power and significant situational awareness to coordinate other jets in the fight.
The F-15EX boasts improved cockpit displays and a greater degree of situational awareness than its F-15C predecessor, but for all intents and purposes, will continue to operate in the same capacity.
The F-15EX may be the newest fighter in the Air Force’s stable, but it was able to be thrown directly into this sort of testing thanks to the platform’s long and illustrious pedigree.
The F-15 airframe has been flying for 48 years under the flags of the United States and a number of its allies. During that time, the air superiority fighter has accrued an incredible 104-0 dogfighting record against other aircraft, having never lost a scrap with another fighter on record.
The United States stopped purchasing new F-15s around two decades ago, but allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not only continued to purchase the aircraft over the intervening years, they invested billions into improving it.
As a result, the United States was able to kick start new purchases of an advanced version of the F-15, complete with 20 years’ worth of ally-funded upgrades, for significantly less than it would have cost to pursue a new non-stealthy fighter. The result is quite possibly the most capable fourth-generation fighter the world has ever seen.
But despite its increased power, payload capabilities, sensor suite, cockpit systems and more, the F-15EX is still operating at a significant disadvantage in a near-peer conflict like the one Northern Edge simulated.
Capable as it may be, the Eagle II lacks stealth, making it a target for long-distance attacks from both other fighters and ground-based air defense systems.
Modern electronic warfare systems employed by enemy defenses also make things that much tougher for all pilots, including those aboard the new F-15s.
“At Northern Edge we’re assessing how the F-15EX can perform in a jamming environment, to include GPS, radar and Link 16 jamming,” said Maj. Aaron Eshkenazi, F-15EX pilot, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
“The other main goal is assessing the EX’s interoperability with fourth and fifth-generation assets. With more than 60 aircraft airborne during every vul (vulnerability period – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm) at Northern Edge, we’re putting the jet in the role it will perform in once it’s fielded, and seeing how it does. So far, it’s been performing really well.”
The Navy will shelve roughly 55 aircraft over the next year, the documents state, in hopes of transitioning to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. But to make sure it has enough fighters available amid the conversion, it expects the Air Force to transfer some F-16s to it.
“This divestment reduces long-term support cost of older [Hornets] while retaining adversary capacity,” the documents state, but do not specify the number of F-16s needed. Seapower Magazine reported earlier this month the F-16s could come from Air National Guard units.
The service is moving to reduce its fighter force and focus on the Super Hornet; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and the F/A-18 follow-on aircraft, currently known as the F/A-XX, which defies traditional categorization as a single aircraft platform or technology – potentially using a fighter flying alongside artificial intelligence-enhanced drones.
The service is weighing whether the F/A-XX will be manned, unmanned or partially autonomous, Navy officials have said.
The Navy has accepted F-16s before, with 26 special F-16N versions – 22 single-seat and four two-seater aircraft – used between 1988 and 1998 for aggressor training.
Following the retirement of the N models, the service acquired 14 F-16s originally slated for the Pakistani air force in the early 2000s, which it currently uses at its “Topgun” school at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
Air Force officials have said the F-16 still has a place in its fleet for now, even as it reduces the number of types of fighter jets and attack aircraft it keeps.
“The newer block [F-16s] that have been upgraded are going to fly for some time,” said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.
The Air Force will weigh what types of roles or mission sets make sense for the F-16 as a multirole fighter – including homeland defense – and whether the newer aircraft can be upgraded down the line, Hinote said in an interview with Military.com earlier this month.
Air Force Magazine reported that the service will introduce a program known as Multirole Fighter-X, or MR-X, later this decade. It is expected to join the service’s inventory in the mid-2030s, according to the magazine.
Hinote said it’s possible F-16s could fill the MR-X role. But if upgrades are too extensive or too costly, the next MR-X could be a “clean sheet” fighter design.
“That would be a digitally designed new type of fighter affordable mainly for missions where survivability is not the most important concern,” he said, referring to homeland defense over a near-peer conflict.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said he’s open to something beyond the F-16 for the future multirole jet.
“Let’s not just buy off the shelf; let’s actually take a look at something else out there that we can build,” Brown said during a Defense Writers Group virtual chat with reporters in February.
Like Hinote, Brown said that the service wants something that can be economically sustainable, digitally designed, produced quickly and has an open-architecture software system that can be rapidly modified to keep up with missions.
“I want to be able to build something new and different that’s not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach,” he said in February.
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown revealed the new statistic during a hearing about the fiscal 2022 budget before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. As of this week, he said, the F-35 fighter fleet is second in size only to the F-16 Fighting Falcon; the Air Force has 934 F-16 C and D models.
Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Malinda Singleton told Military.com the service has 283 F-35s, which also surpasses the A-10 Warthog fleet by two aircraft.
During the hearing, Brown discussed how the Air Force plans to move forward with its “TacAir study,” which will determine the right mix of aircraft for the future, and assess how future fighter concepts will fit into the current mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters.
“It won’t necessarily give us an answer, [but] a range of answers to take a look at the threat and make sure we have done the analysis to inform ourselves but also our key stakeholders, which includes this committee,” he said.
The F-35 fleet eclipsed the number of F-22 Raptors in 2019 – with 203 at the end of that fiscal year; the Air Force capped its Raptor fleet at 187 in 2009 (it currently has 186).
Brown in February disputed reports calling the F-35 a high-cost Pentagon failure, saying that was “nowhere near the case.” In his prepared testimony before the subcommittee Friday, he said the jet remains “the cornerstone of our future fighter force and air superiority.”
The US Air Force is sending its new F-15EX fourth-plus generation fighter to participate in a large-scale exercise in and around Alaska next month.
The 53rd Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, announced Thursday that the F-15EX, now known as the Eagle II, will conduct operational tests while flying in Exercise Northern Edge 21, a joint Indo-Pacific Command drill incorporating approximately 15,000 service members from each branch, multiple Navy ships and roughly 240 aircraft.
“The unique range assets in place at Northern Edge provide a different, unfamiliar, complex, and operationally realistic environment for the technology and the tactics we’re testing,” said Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, 53rd Wing director of staff, in a news release. The service’s first two F-15EX fighters belong to the 53rd as they undergo test and evaluation. The Boeing-made jets were delivered to the Air Force earlier this month.
The wing will also test other equipment during the exercise, such as the Infrared Search and Track sensor pod on the F-15C model and communication node gateways on the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, the release states.
In a discussion with the Air Force Association this week, Lt. Gen. David Krumm, Pacific Air Forces’ 11th Air Force commander, said the F-15EX will try out its Eagle Passive/Active Warning Survivability System, an advanced electronic warfare technology designed to increase its threat assessment and survivability.
Aircraft will fly within the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, which encompasses more than 77,000 square miles of airspace. Pilots often practice aggressor training there – simulating friendly “blue air” against enemy fighters in advanced air-to-air training.
Ships and aircraft, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will operate in the Gulf of Alaska for the exercise, the release adds.
The Air Force is in the process of building up its fighter fleet at Eielson, including the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing version, to support missions in both the Pacific and Arctic. A total of 54 F-35s are scheduled to arrive at Eielson by December 2021.
Major units participating in the exercise include the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and Carrier Air Wing 11; the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, from Elmendorf-Richardson; 17th Field Artillery Brigade from Lewis-McChord; and the 3rd Expeditionary Air and Space Task Force.
“Typically, training happens within your units, within your services, but you never really get the volume or the complexity you would expect to see in a modern-day conflict,” said Lt. Col. Mike Boyer, Pacific Air Forces Northern Edge lead planner, in the release.
“Northern Edge allows the joint force to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in the big picture and allows our younger generation within the armed forces to experience what future conflict could feel like in the complexities associated with it,” he said.