This Occasional Paper examines the efforts underway in the UK, France, Germany and the US to produce new combat aircraft and systems over the next fifteen to twenty years; sheds light on some of the challenges and drivers; and suggests some potential options for force optimization.
Three key features of future high-intensity conflict are likely to shape the requirements of next generation combat-air systems.
-- Firstly, the increasing density, variety, and resolution of sensors, coupled with powerful post-processing analysis techniques, will make it harder to enter contested airspace undetected. Being difficult to track and target (stealth) will remain valuable, but other elements of the survivability equation – such as speed, agility, electronic warfare, and sufficient combat mass to absorb attrition – may well regain some of their traditional importance.
-- Secondly, currently cutting-edge surface-to-air missile systems and sensors will proliferate from Russia and China to countries currently considered to be sub-peer opponents. This will raise the risk and potential costs of air operations overseas. Russia is currently, and will likely remain for several decades, the source of the most capable ground-based air defence systems, as well as electronic-warfare capabilities which can significantly degrade NATO networks and sensors. However, China is emerging as the more potentially worrying source of future combat aircraft which might pose a threat to Western types.
-- Thirdly, crucial enablers for combat aircraft such as large prepared airfields/aircraft carriers, aerial refuelling tankers, and the aviation fuel, spare parts, consumables, and munitions supplies on which sustained operations depend will be at risk from both kinetic and asymmetric attacks, including hypersonic missiles, at much longer distances away from the traditional battlespace than ever before.
Click here for the full report (42 PDF pages) on the RUSI website.