In comments made to the Defense Writers Group, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown explained that the Air Force would like a new, from-scratch fighter to replace the F-16 with what seems to be capabilities somewhere in between the F-16 and the F-35. “Now, I will also tell you I don’t think that everybody’s going to exactly agree with what I say,” Brown explained. “But I want to actually have a starting point as a point of departure, a point of dialogue.”
Brown elaborated on the design, saying that it would tentatively be categorized as a 4.5 or 5-minus generation fighter, Breaking Defense reported.
This comes on the heels of the Air Force’s recent acquisition of the new F-15EX, the most advanced F-15 variant to date, to replace older Air National Guard F-15Cs. Though the F-15EX platform would not be expected to survive on modern battlefields in highly contested airspace, the platform could excel in conflicts without serious air defense threats, or as a homeland defense platform.
But instead of just buying newer, somewhat more capable F-16 fighters, Brown explained that he wants the Air Force 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.” More specifically, it would be important for the F-16 replacment to be able to receive software updates while in the air in order to afford greater capabilities, quite literally while on-the-fly.
F-16 Replacement Plan Meets F-35 Sustainability
Though the Air Force is preparing for the eventual unveiling of an advanced 6th-gen fighter design, it still needs aircraft that can excel in a low-end fight, partly to preserve the flight hours of more advanced stealth fighters like the F-22 Raptor or F-35.
The average age of the Air Force’s fighter jets are 28 years old, an advanced age that is “not going to compete well with adversaries,” Gen. Brown pointed out, and hence the need for a potential new fighter: “to bring down the average age, to have something relevant not just today, but well into the future.”
Questions of age aside, Gen. Brown also acknowledged the fact that leaning on the F-35 stealth fighter has caused excessive engine wear on the platform. Though improved maintenance schedules could be one solution to extending F-35 engine life, another option could simply be to fly the F-35 less often. “I want to moderate how much we’re using those [F-35] aircraft,” Gen. Brown explained. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight…We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.