Alongside efforts to develop high end heavyweight combat jets costing over 100 million dollars, from the Air Dominance Fighter and F-X sixth generation fighter programs to the B-21 Raider stealth bomber program, the U.S. Air Force is reportedly set to develop lighter combat jets which prioritise low cost and disposability.
To reduce loss of life and costs of pilot training, such aircraft will be unmanned – although it is uncertain whether the intention is to remotely pilot fleets of expendable drones or to develop a sufficiently capable artificial intelligence system to fly the aircraft. These aircraft can take risks manned fighters cannot, and could be used to wear out high end enemy air defence networks, overwhelm enemy fighters and carry out other tasks where high losses could be expected. Air Force officials speaking at the 2019 Defense News conference referred to plans for a fleet of “low-cost, single use aircraft,” although more details on the nature of these platforms and their capabilities have yet to be unveiled.
S-400 Surface to Air Missile Battery
The U.S. Air Force has in the past repurposed older aircraft such as F-4 Phantoms into disposable single use jets – at times using these as targets for its modern fighters and air to air missiles. It has been speculated in the past that these could potentially be used to overwhelm enemy air defences should a viable operating system be developed, with several thousand of these platforms currently in reserve and capable of being deployed to soften high value targets – possibly alongside high end fighter jets to lessen the dangers to more expensive manned aircraft.
It should not be ruled out, however, that entirely new aircraft could be developed for such a role. While high end U.S. drones can cost over $200 million each – over 250% as much as an F-35A stealth fighter – the possibility of developing expendable ones for a small fraction the price capable of effectively operating alongside fighter jets could be a game changer for the U.S. Air Force’s offensive capability. To take Russian air defences as an example – the S-300PMU-2 and S-400 systems are capable of engaging up to 32 and 80 aircraft simultaneously respectively, and require considerable time to reload between salvos.
While these hypersonic missile systems are potentially lethal against fourth generation American aircraft such as the F-15 and F-18 even at extreme ranges, able to cause unacceptable losses among both airmen and fighter jets particularly when operating as part of larger air defence networks, use of both expandable drones in combination with more survivable fifth and sixth generation fighters could be ideal for penetrating such defense networks.