The U.S. Air Force may be considering a special “Pacific” variant of its new sixth-generation stealth fighter. That new warplane surprised and impressed many last year by suddenly becoming airborne years ahead of schedule. Very little is known about the secretive jet, yet in an interesting new development, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown said there may be some consideration being given to developing two variants of the aircraft one for Europe, and one for the Pacific.
Brown did not indicate any particular plan, yet when asked about the prospect from a reporter at the 2021 Air Force Association Annual Symposium, he did not rule out the possibility, adding that indeed more range would be needed for fighter jet operations in the Pacific.
Surveillance and attack missions, not to mention the distances between launch locations in friendly countries such as Japan or Australia, certainly might require extended range technology. This might be particularly true in high threat environments where stealth might be of great significance, meaning less stealthy tankers might have much more difficulty operating without being detected and shot down, due to newer far more advanced air defenses. Given this circumstance, a sixth-generation aircraft would seem to need to be both stealthy and engineered with new levels of range capacity. Interestingly, there are certainly instances wherein new engine technology can massively enhance fuel efficiency, so perhaps that is an area of focus.
There is also precedent for stealthy-looking conformal fuel tanks, such as those on the F-15EX or variants of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. It would seem feasible that engineers might find a way to reach new speeds, yet with greater fuel efficiency to enable longer mission scope and dwell time. For instance, what if sixth-generation fighters needed to take off from Guam or Australian bases even further south, for attack and reconnaissance missions North of the Korean Peninsula?
The Air Force also has, for many years now, been working with General Electric and other industry partners on a next-generation engine program called Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology specifically intended to increase range, speed and fuel efficiency. It certainly seems feasible some of the innovations emerging from this program, which goes back to 2015, could prove impactful.
While helicopters are quite different from fixed wing stealth fighters, perhaps (if only in concept) the Army’s initial success with Future Vertical Lift seems to suggest that it is possible to both greatly increase speed while also doubling range beyond a legacy platform. Newer Apache variants, as well, have been engineered with more fuel efficient 701D engines and a technology called Improved Turbine Engine Program. In short, engine and propulsion technologies could be an area of focus.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.