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TOP COMBAT AIRCRAFT OF 2030 : AN EXHAUSTIVE STUDY

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked him to predict the top combat aircraft of 2030. This paper speculates about the future in the air combat domain. It draws on available open-source information about current aircraft and projects, and adds a healthy dose of pure speculation about the nature and objectives of possible future systems.

⭐ Looking ahead 10 years from today, what are the key trends for future combat aircraft?

In considering this, I assume continued proliferation of highly-capable long-range ground-based missile systems, coupled with continuing advances in radars, electro-optic sensor systems, long-range air-to-air missiles, and the emergence of operational hypersonic weapons.

🌟 How does this affect the design and/or development of future air combat systems?

To me, one emergent feature is a tendency to convergence in future technical solutions. The hostile air and ground counter-air environment is likely to ensure all future combat aircraft will seek to be stealthy, certainly in radar signature, but also as far as possible in the IR. There is already a detectable trend towards larger, longer-range platforms, capable either of wide area response to counter air threats, or the long-range delivery of strike and area-denial weapons at significant stand-off ranges, at least for those operators with large geography to protect or control.

Additionally, the range, and hence size of air-launched weapons is increasing, again promoting a trend towards larger platforms. When this is coupled with a need to carry powerful sensors, and to be, as far as possible, stealthy, it is likely that platform agility will become less of a driver. Propulsion technologies continue to advance, and may, in some instances pace airframe development.

⭐ So what form does this convergence in platform design take? At present there appear to be three favoured configurations:

Large, twin-engine, closely-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-22 and the Su-57, this configuration appears to be aimed at the manoeuvrable, air-superiority role, with an additional emphasis on all-aspect stealth. It is expected to be used to control and deny contested airspace, and to create local air superiority to enable other missions.
Smaller, single or twin-engine, close-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-35 (single engine) and J-31 (twin-engine), this configuration appears to be primarily aimed at multi-role missions delivering strike, with an organic air combat capability. Penetration of contested airspace will be required to deliver the strike role, but supersonic performance and energy manoeuvrability will not be as great as the F-22/Su-57 class.

Large, twin-engine, long-coupled canard, near-delta. Exemplified by the J-20, this class of aircraft appears to maximise payload-range and weapons flexibility, with some potential compromise to signature and manoeuvre capability. One key, and new, role could be as Area Access Denial systems, using long range weapons to engage (or deter) not only threat combat aircraft, but enablers such as tankers and AEW platforms.

Notwithstanding this convergence in high-end air combat capabilities, small Nations seeking to deter and defend against aggression, rather than to dominate outside their borders, are likely to continue to need an agile, rapid response, interception capability, probably supplemented by the best available ground-based systems. Some older platforms, with suitable long-range weapons and system upgrades, will still have capability in this role, and some emerging projects exist that appear to be adopting J-31-like (twin-engine F-35) configurations.

It is important to realise that the delivery of air capability will be dependent not only on platform capabilities, but much more critically, on the total air combat system. In the end, any of the future combat aircraft discussed below will also rely on the performance of on-board and off-board sensors; command and control, communications, networking and datalinks; weapons capabilities; organic and off-board electronic warfare and protection systems, and so on. Material on US projects suggests the use of cooperative autonomous systems to enable strike operations, including targeting, deception, communications relay and electronic attack.

Consequently, the trend for further integration and networking of air and ground-based sensors, and on-board and off-board electronic warfare systems will continue, in an effort to gain a situational awareness advantage, and to deny situational awareness to threats. This itself, is likely to increase pressure to further develop cyber and deception capabilities, to degrade and dis-integrate opposition air defences. It is also possible that future efforts by the three big players (US, Russia and China) may seek to exploit some space-based capabilities, beyond the current pervasive use of GPS.

This piece is speculative. It does not draw on any special knowledge. Instead, I consider what might be likely responses to the developing environment. As guesses about the future are notoriously unreliable, I expect many will disagree with my assessments. That’s OK – I don’t pretend to know the future, but I’m happy to provoke a bit of debate.

💥 Air combat systems – 2030

At the end of the next decade, the mature and emergent systems are likely to be:

🔳US mature US emergent

⏩F-22 F/A-XX

⏩F-35 F-X

🔳Russia mature Russia emergent

⏩Su-57 Mig 41

⏩Su-35 derivatives

🔳China mature

⏩J-20

⏩J-31

🔳Europe mature Europe emergent

⏩Typhoon Tempest

⏩Rafale Airbus-Dassault FCAS

⏩Gripen E

🔳Other emergent

⏩TFX Korea

⏩F3 Japan

⏩India ?

Brief comments on these systems follow, indicating my view of the current state of play, and expressing some views on capability in the 2030 timeframe, program aspects etc. starting with the those that are likely to be mature in 2030.

🔴 2030 Mature Systems

🔵 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

⏩Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

⏩Configuration: A

⏩2018 Status: Mature

⏩ 2030 Status: At life-of-type

The aircraft is successful in service, but has poor availability, and is (by US standards) small in numbers. As a result, F-22 presence is often in the form of small deployed detachments rather than significant numbers.

The enigma about the F-22 is that there has been continued resistance to proposed upgrade programs. This suggests that US plans for a replacement are already in hand and perhaps proceeding in the Black world. While the F/A-XX program is examining replacements for the F-18 E/F, there is little visibility of the USAF F-X program intended to replace the F-22.

If a future program fails to mature in time, an upgrade may be required. This would be likely to address electronic obsolescence, and bring radar, EW and other systems up to the state-of-the-art. A desirable, but unlikely, upgrade would be a fuselage stretch to increase fuel capacity and increase weapons-bay length, increasing mission flexibility.

Breaking news, as this article was being prepared, is a pitch from Lockheed-Martin to the DoD (and possibly Japan), to upgrade F-22 with elements of the F-35 mission system, as well as some changes to structure and coatings.

🔵 Lockheed F-35 Lightning II

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Situational awareness node)

⏩Configuration: B (single engine)

⏩2018 Status: In development, and in service

⏩2030 Status: Mature

The F-35 is set to be the mainstay of many Nations’ air capability for the next two decades. At present, although the aircraft is in service, the development program continues.

The initial challenges in the program were seen to lie in developing a common configuration meeting Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps needs, with stealth, good supersonic and manoeuvre performance, and, where required ASTOVL and carrier capability. In practice, the real challenge has turned out to be software integration and qualification, for the many diverse systems incorporated in the aircraft.

By 2030, the aircraft and its systems should be fully mature, and at the peak of its capability. In USAF service, the aircraft is seen as a strike adjunct to the F-22, but is perhaps increasing in importance as the availability of the F-22 has been relatively poor. The enabling aspects of JSF in providing and distributing situational awareness within and across the force is a key, and perhaps under-appreciated capability.

🔵 Sukhoi Su-35 derivatives

⏩Role: Air Combat (with numerous other variants)

⏩Configuration: Conventional

⏩2018 Status: Mature

⏩2030 Status: Obsolescent

I would not consider the Su-35 to be a major capability in 2030, except, perhaps in the Air Defence role, where its long range, high speed, large radar, and ability to carry large numbers of long-range AAMs, should continue to provide significant deterrence against all but the highest-end threats.

🔵 Sukhoi Su-57

⏩Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

⏩Configuration: A

⏩2018 Status: In development, just entering service

⏩2030 Status: Mature

The Su-57 could turn out to be an enduring and significant air combat capability. In 2018, the type has just been operationally deployed for the first time, and, assuming development continues, the aircraft should eventually provide a significant air superiority capability, with low signature, good performance and range.

How successful the program will be in delivering a well-integrated, well-armed, highly capable low signature fighter remains to be seen. With good program outcomes, this could be the Su-27 for the 2020s and beyond. At the time of writing, limited production is in progress, and there is some suggestion that the pace of the program has been slowed, either to await the readiness of the production standard engine, or in response to economic conditions.

There is a potential for large numbers of aircraft to be produced to replace both the MiG-29 and Su-35 in Russian service, and a somewhat variable prospect that the Su-57 might be co-produced in India to meet their future heavy fighter requirements. While the aircraft is still in development, final program outcomes are unknown, but I would expect Su-57 to emerge as a highly capble, well-equipped and mature capability by 2030.

🔵 Chengdu J-20

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Area Denial, Precision Strike)

⏩Configuration: C

⏩2018 Status: In development, just entering service

⏩2030 Status: Mature

The J-20 represents the first of what is, in my view, a new class of combat aircraft. While the aircraft could easily deliver a MiG-31-like large area air defence capability, I believe it has a broader remit, dependent on the availability of large, long-range, and possibly hypersonic weapons.

The long-coupled canard near-delta configuration should deliver a broad centre of gravity range. When this is coupled with the large size of the aircraft, its high fuel capacity and large weapons bays, I suggest that the J-10 would be well suited to what we used to call in the UK the Control and Denial of Theatre Airspace, over very large geographic areas.

The aircraft has just entered service, and has attracted recent attention as it has been seen carrying an external targeting pod. Future roles are going to be dependent on weapons integration, but long-range air defence, including access denial to not just combat aircraft, but AWACS, tankers and ships is not beyond the realms of possibility. Currently, China seems to have the ability to develop and field complex systems with remarkable speed. The J-20 is likely to be a significant player within a decade.

🔵 Shenyang J-31

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Carrier Air Defence)

⏩Configuration: B (twin engine)

⏩2018 Status: In development

⏩2030 Status: Mature

The J-31 is a twin-engine F-35 look-alike, and appear to have been designed to deliver similar roles, although it is not entirely clear whether the primary Chinese role will be as a carrier-borne aircraft or not.

The configuration is very similar to the F-35, but it is suggested that the aircraft may carry the PL-15 missile, which is similar to the MBDA Meteor.

By 2030, the J-31 should be mature and in service, presumably with the Chinese Navy carriers, but possibly also with other Nations, as the system appears to be being offered for export. However, the likely customers are perhaps limited (Pakistan, Egypt?). Much will depend on how well integrated and networked the J-31 turns out to be.

That said, as a carrier-based strike aircraft, with the additional capability of carrying effective and long-range AAMs, the J-31 could still fill a useful niche in tactical control, for example, of South China Sea airspace.

⏩ Notes: if thrust vectoring is fitted to the J-31- as has been tested- it will be virtually unbeatable in the close-in combat regime.

🔵 Eurofighter Typhoon/Dassault Rafale

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Air Superiority, Air Defence, Strike)

⏩Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

⏩2018 Status: Mature, but in spiral development

⏩2030 Status: Mature

Typhoon and Rafale represent high-end 4th generation capability. Equipped with a wide range of weapons systems, their capabilities continue to be enhanced. The introduction of Meteor on both aircraft, and active e-scan radar on Typhoon, should ensure that these capable aircraft remain effective for some time to come.

Both aircraft have some signature reduction measures in place, but are not considered stealthy. As a result, over time, their ability to deliver Air Superiority may diminish somewhat. That said, the long-range of the Meteor AAM should mean their effectiveness is retained against all but the most challenging threats. In permissive environments, their flexibility in the strike role should ensure their continued effectiveness out to 2030.

🔵 Saab Gripen E/F

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Strike, Situational Awareness)

⏩Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

⏩2018 Status: Completing development

⏩2030 Status: Mature

The Gripen E is a highly integrated agile air defence aircraft, with a robust and flexible strike capability. The E/F-model, particularly when operating in a networked environment, will remain a capable air defence aircraft out to 2030 and beyond. Although not a stealth aircraft, its ability to use and share networked information allows third-party targeting and high situational awareness. Armed with Meteor and IRIS-T, and with an active e-scan radar, Gripen E/F will remain a capable air defence aircraft in the 2030s environment.

However, it is likely that by the 2030s, the proliferation of highly capable surface-to-air systems and stealthy air defence platforms will increasingly challenge Gripen in the air superiority and strike roles. Gripen has been quite widely exported, and should retain significant capability as a regional air defence and strike system against all but the most capable threat systems.

⏩Speculation – Developmental Systems

The systems discussed below are those about which little is known at present, and, in some cases, are just conjecture. For convenience, I’ll consider the known or likely needs of the key players – the US, Russia, China, Europe and other nations.

🔴 US – future systems

As we have seen from the earlier discussion, there is an emerging capability gap around USAF air superiority systems, given the lack of a program for a capability upgrade to the F-22. A replacement program, F-X, is in existence, but little hard information is available. There is also a lack of clarity about future US Navy plans to replace the F/A-18 E/F/G under the F/A-XX program.

🔵 USAF 6th Generation Fighter F-X

⏩Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

⏩Configuration: Unknown

⏩2018 Status: In development (?)

⏩2030 Status: Entry to service

The limited information available suggests that the USAF is seeking a system-of-systems approach, where a range of sensor, communications, electronic, cyber, platform(s) and weapons would deliver its future capability. There is an indication that the platform element of this would gave significantly greater range and payload than the current F-22, while retaining the ability to be both stealthy and supersonic.

One enabler for this is seen as the use of variable cycle propulsion systems, offering modes at higher bypass ratio for the cruise, and lower bypass ration for take-off, acceleration and dash. Adjunct systems are likely, and might include long-range ground-based air defence systems; stand-off, and possibly space-based, sensor systems; and, speculatively, some autonomous systems which might deliver targeting, communications relay or EW capabilities.

Given US conviction of its superiority in LO technologies, this aspect is likely to be emphasised. Consequently, I would not anticipate a J-10 style solution as the US believe canards too much of a compromise in this area. There has been substantial research in unconventional control devices for LO systems, and there is a US desire to avoid vertical tail surfaces if possible.

Based on all this – a large highly swept delta, with minimal tail surfaces, and active use of innovative control systems appears likely. To be effective, such a platform would need to carry highly effective and long-range AAMs, and would be supported by networked detection, tracking and targeting systems, as well as stand-off electronic warfare and cyber capabilities.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

🔵 F/A-XX

⏩Role: Multi-role (Air Defence, Strike, EW)

⏩Configuration: Unknown

⏩2018 Status: In development (?)

⏩2030 Status: Entry to service

The F/A-XX program reflects a US Navy need to replace the F/A-18 E, F, and G in the mid-2020s as these platforms reach their service lives. Compared to the USAF requirement for a 6th gen fighter, the future F/A-XX is likely to constrained by carrier deck size and possible weight constraints, and also by the necessity to operate within the deployed environment of the carrier battle group.

The available material discussing the project expresses similar aspirations to F-X in terms of the system being networked and integrated with other components in order to achieve the required capability effects. That said, there are suggestions that the US Navy may seek a somewhat more agile system that that proposed for the USAF.

There are some interesting programmatic issues, not least the question as to why the Navy doesn’t simply acquire more F-35C to replace the Super Hornets. My guess is that the Navy will seek to have a program which draws on the technologies being developed for F-X and F/A-XX, but will seek to acquire a Navy-specific solution rather than a common system.

On configuration, I think a Navy F/A-XX would be smaller and more agile than the Air Force F-X. It will also need compromises to be made to achieve the deck landing and take-off requirements, and these may result in a somewhat less stealthy solution than the F-X.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

🔴 Russia – future systems

🔵 RAC MiG MiG-41

⏩Role: Air Defence (Area Denial?)

⏩Configuration: Unknown (A?)

⏩2018 Status: In Development

⏩2030 Status: Entry to service

The MiG 41 is a replacement for the MiG 31 interceptor, currently in service with the Russian Air Force. Very little information is available, and what is available appears contradictory and unlikely.

There is discussion of an aircraft capable of Mach 4+; reference is made to the MiG 41 being a totally new design; but other sources suggest it will draw heavily on the in-service MiG 31.

What can be said is that the MiG-41 will be large, fast and heavy. All these attributes are driven by the geography of Russia and the consequential vast area of airspace that the interceptor force would seek to control. We can also say that the aircraft will carry high powered electronically scanned radars, will have good electronic attack and protection systems, and will deploy large, long-range, and probably hypersonic air-to-air missiles.

Although I would expect some efforts to be made to reduce the signature of the aircraft compared to the MiG 31, I doubt this will dominate, because the interception mission is likely to involve high-speed and high-power operations, resulting in a significant IR signature. Also, I would expect the Russians to seek to out-gun their threats by using very long-range high-speed weapons, enabling the carrier aircraft to stay out of harm’s way.

A possible configuration would be a twin-engine, close-coupled tailed near-delta, significantly larger than the F-22. I’d expect a more shaped and slender appearance than the current MiG 31, and large internal weapons bays to support long-range hypersonic AAMs and area denial weapons.

🔴 European – future systems

🔵 Team Tempest Tempest

⏩Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike, EW)

⏩Configuration: Unknown (A?)

⏩2018 Status: Concept Development

⏩2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

At this stage, not too much should be read into the configuration shown at the recent Farnborough Show. The general shape and size, however, and the associated presentation material, are well-aligned with the hypothesis that the future direction for air combat systems is towards large, stealthy, very flexible platforms, operating in a highly cooperative networked system-of-systems.

The final form of Tempest will depend on which Nations come on board to participate in the project. In essence, the choice here is a bit limited, as France and Germany have announced their own project and are thus ruled out, at least for the moment. In addition, Tempest would be competitive with future US systems, and there are strong disincentives for BAE to collaborate on this project with the US, as this would result in significant constraints due to US International Traffic in Arms Regulation legislation, and might also impact on its desire for design leadership.

Who else might become involved? Possibilities would appear to include Italy, Sweden and Turkey, all of which are not strongly aligned with the US, and are likely to have future air combat needs. Japan can be ruled out, due to its close ties with the US, and India is also unlikely, due to its recent technical alignment being with Russia rather than the West.

Whatever partners are involved, alignment of requirements will be the key. This might just be a problem for Sweden, which despite strong past industrial cooperation between SAAB and BAE Systems, might just prefer a smaller, more agile local air defence solution rather than the ambitious air superiority and penetrating strike capabilities at which Tempest appears to be directed.

🔵 Airbus-Dassault FCAS

⏩Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike)

⏩Configuration: Unknown

⏩2018 Status: Concept development

⏩2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

Airbus Defence and Space of Germany, and Dassault of France, have agreed to cooperate on the FCAS project to develop a future European combat aircraft. The information available on this project is very slight, but follows the familiar themes of being stealthy and operating as part of a networked system-of-systems.

Material from Airbus includes a twin-engine, tailed, near-delta configuration with twin vertical fins. Dassault material includes a significantly more challenging twin-engine tailless delta, with no vertical surfaces. Both concepts appear somewhat smaller than the BAE Systems Tempest configuration shown at Farnborough, and may thus be aimed at the fighter mission with a secondary strike capability, rather than a true multi-role platform.

Key issue for this program will be alignment with potential customer requirements, workshare, and whether Europe can sustain two ambitious combat aircraft development programs.

🔴 Other future systems

🔵 KFX/TFX

⏩Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, plus Strike)

⏩Configuration: B (twin engine)

⏩2018 Status: Proposed development

⏩2030 Status: Uncertain

The KFX and TFX are similar twin-engine F-35 look-alikes. Both Nations expect to operate the F-35, although this currently looks a bit uncertain for Turkey. Consequently, the rationale for developing a similar configuration and size of aircraft appears questionable. My interpretation is that both Nations are seeking to enhance their Industrial capability in the aerospace sector, and the FX projects provide a way of achieving this.

I would expect both aircraft to focus on the Air Defence role, because this would provide an opportunity to supplement rather than simply duplicate F-35 capability. It is not clear whether a secondary strike role for the aircraft is envisaged.

The KFX is slightly smaller than the otherwise similar TFX, and is likely to be powered by two (probably license-built) GE F414 engines. The TFX is the subject of a technical agreement with BAE, and interestingly two EJ200 engines are proposed.

Both programs are to some extent at political risk. It is far from clear how the relationship between South Korea and North Korea will develop, and this, together with the relationship between South Korea and the USA, is likely to have a strong influence on the KFX. Equally, Turkey’s aspiration to operate the F-35 is at substantial risk because of the poor current relationship with the USA. If that situation is not resolved, Turkey may follow a different path, resulting also in a change in direction for the TFX program.

Minor update for the TFX: It has recently been reported that GE F110 (probably the -129 version) was selected for the prototype(s)

🔵 Indian AMCA

⏩Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

⏩Configuration: A

⏩2018 Status: Immature concept development

⏩2030 Status: Unlikely

The AMCA is an attempt to leap from the much-delayed Tejas to a high-end Indian F-22. On the face of it the design appears to be immature. There would need to be significant advances in Indian capabilities to field the engine, develop and refine a true stealth configuration, and integrate the aircraft and weapons system.

The only way I could see this aircraft being realised in the supposed time-scale would be with very significant assistance from a third party. India has had talks with Russia about the Su-57 for this role, and the very existence of the AMCA project suggests that these have not been successful.

I’m calling this one improbable at this stage. The project is possibly a fall-back option should the Su-57 approach fail, but in that event, it is unclear who might be approach to assist in development.

🔴 Conclusions

All the major air combat players appear to be taking the view that Air Superiority and Strike in the 2030s will be delivered by a networked system-of-systems. The air platforms will be generally large, stealthy, and capable of delivering Air Superiority and Strike capabilities. It is likely that long-range AAMs and strike weapons will be used, and the platform capabilities will be supplemented by adjunct systems, which might include targeting, electronic attack, decoy, communications and cyber capabilities. China and Russia are likely to deploy long-range hypersonic weapons with the intent of creating an Area Denial capability.

It would be surprising if the US were not to follow suit, and given the time required to develop complex air combat systems, it would be surprising if substantial F-X and F/A-XX related activities were not underway in the Black Project world. The recent floating by Lockheed-Martin of a proposal to upgrade the F-22, using the systems developed for the F-35, may indicate an emerging need for a capability sustainment program to keep the F-22 in service longer, while awaiting the outcome of a replacement program.

The most significant air combat systems in 2030 would appear likely to be:

🔳Air Superiority

⏩US: F-X, F/A-XX

⏩Russia: Su-57

🔳Access Denial

⏩Russia: MiG-41

⏩China: J-20

🔳Air Defence

⏩France/Germany: FCAS

⏩Sweden: Gripen E/F

⏩China: J-31

🔳Multi-role

⏩UK & partners: Tempest

⏩Or a joint program with Airbus-Dassault and BAE Systems

⏩US: F-35

🔵 What else could be out there?

This paper does not consider purely Strike systems. It is, however likely that all the major parties will continue the development of stealthy autonomous strike systems. In the US this might be the Lockheed SR-91, or its Boeing competitor.

All the major parties are also focussed on hypersonic weapons systems. Not only are such systems hard to defeat, they almost inevitably have long-range. Applications are likely in area denial, and in countering high-value assets. Boost-glide vehicles are a possibility, offering the prospect of rapid (non-nuclear) strategic strike capability.

Autonomous vehicle applications are already extending beyond strike and reconnaissance, into tankers, communications relay, and electronic warfare, and this trend will continue.

(Hush-Kit)

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