The U.S. Air Force May Build a 4.5-Generation Fighter Jet to Replace the F-16

The U.S. Air Force May Build a 4.5-Generation Fighter Jet to Replace the F-16

The U.S. Air Force is thinking about buying a brand new fighter jet to partially replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

While the service was once committed to replacing the F-16 with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it appears to be having second thoughts, as the cost of the latter jet remains sky-high. The new plane will likely lack the stealth of the F-35, but could pack many of its other features.

The Air Force is launching a study into what mix of tactical aircraft the service should field in the 2020s, Air Force Chief of Staff C.Q. Brown recently said at a media event, per Breaking Defense. The study should be complete by 2023.

The Air Force will consider a “clean sheet design” for a new “four-and-a-half-gen or fifth-gen-minus” fighter as a direct replacement for the F-16s currently in service, Brown said.

This is curious news, considering the Air Force has insisted for decades the replacement for the F-16 was the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force has also insisted it would never buy another non-stealthy fighter jet again.

While Brown didn’t appear to offer a good reason why the Air Force would develop a new plane instead of continuing to purchase the F-35, one obvious reason is cost. The F-35 was originally advertised in 2001 with a $50 million price tag ($73.2 million in 2021 dollars). The plane’s price tag has dropped considerably over the past decade, from nearly $300 million each for the first jets down to $77.9 million.

The F-35’s unit cost has dropped, but the cost per hour to actually fly the jet is still sky-high: $44,000. The average Air Force pilot flies 200 hours a year, or 350 hours a year during deployment, so that’s between $9 and $15.7 million per pilot per year. A pilot with 1,000 hours in the cockpit costs a staggering $44 million, more than half the cost of a new fighter.

Since 2019, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin have been trying to get the cost per hour down to $25,000, but the Pentagon has long believed that number may be unattainable. The Air Force has also warned that if the cost doesn’t drop, the service could end up buying fewer F-35s.

The Air Force committed to buy 1,763 F-35As, but if it trims its F-35 order, it will still need airframes to fill its squadrons. The new “four-and-a-half-gen” fighter Brown is talking about would be that airframe.

Why doesn’t the Air Force consider buying new F-16s? That’s a good question.

The Air Force is buying new F-15s (the F-15EX), and like its bigger brother, foreign sales have kept the F-16 continuously upgraded with the latest technology. The aircraft has gained new engines, radar, and weapons since it was debuted in the early 1980s, adding about 5,000 pounds of equipment in the process. Lockheed Martin boasts the latest version, the F-16V, is equipped with technology from both the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“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 uses some of our digital approach,” Brown told reporters. Brown is referring to the new digital engineering techniques the Air Force recently used to secretly build, design, and test a new fighter jet in just one year. By comparison, the F-35 took about 13 years to fly.

The F-16 probably doesn’t have the features the Air Force wants, including long legs. The rise of the Chinese military and a re-energized Russia means planners must consider a potential conflicts in the Asia-Pacific or Europe involving great distances. An Air Force fighter based in Italy might have to fly more than 1,000 miles to strike targets in European Russia, or a Guam-based fighter might need the ability to intercept Chinese bombers at maximum range, before they can launch hypersonic missiles.

The F-35 has a lot of things, but long range isn’t one of them. Flying such missions, which were inconceivable when the F-35 was first designed, would force a Joint Strike Fighter to refuel from aerial refueling tankers and carry external fuel tanks that would make it much easier to see on radar.

The F-22 and F-35 are so-called “fifth-generation fighters” mainly due to their use of stealth technology. A “four-and-a-half” generation fighter generally means a non-stealthy fighter with fifth-generation tech inside. Maintaining a jet’s stealthy coatings and materials is a huge part of the F-35’s high operating cost, so chucking stealth would save a lot of money. The fighter would have some anti-radar technology built in, like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters, but it would lack the straight lines and angular shaping of stealth jets.

A four-and-a-half generation fighter would be larger than the F-16, in order to accommodate a larger internal fuel supply. The rest of the plane would likely have the same feature set as the F-35, including an advanced electronically scanned array radar, 360-degree array of infrared cameras, and the ability to share data with other U.S. military aircraft, ships, and other systems. Like the F-16, the new plane would have a single engine.

What would this mean for the F-35? The Air Force still needs F-35s to help clear the skies of enemy aircraft and penetrate enemy air defenses—but it could considerably reduce its purchase of the fighter jets. If the Air Force does build its 4.5 fighter, it’s hard to see the F-35 as a successful program.

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