It’s going to be a while before the US Air Force gets a new fighter – sometime in the 2030s – but, because it takes so long to develop one, the first work is now under way on the Penetrating Air Capability. Despite the weird name, the goal of this project is to come up with a fighter, optimized for air superiority, which will replace the F-15C and F-22A fleets.
To be honest, this project should have started long ago. Assuming there are no delays, the first of the planes will start entering service around 2035. By that time, the newest F-22A will be 24 years old, and the first ones will be 30. That’s quite old for a fighter – but it’s nothing compared to how old the F-15Cs will be. Built between 1979 and 1985, none of them will be under 50 years old by the time their replacements start joining squadrons – and that’s worryingly old. It’s as if the USAF had still been flying P-51Ds as interceptors in 1992, or the British carriers in the Falklands war had been launching Hawker Osprey biplanes. The comparison’s not exact, because the F-15C’s electronics have been upgraded quite a bit and can probably be stretched even further, but there are already several fighters out there it would struggle to cope with. By 2035, there will be a lot more.
So the USAF wants a replacement, and they’re seriously considering going for a much larger aircraft than either of the types it will replace. Heavy fighters do have some history, some of it quite impressive. Germany’s standard heavy fighter through WWII was the Messerschmitt Bf110, which picked up a terrible reputation during the Battle of Britain but was actually highly effective. It was pretty useless as a close-in bomber escort, but send it out to hunt enemy aircraft and it was lethal. Long range, high speed, extremely high dive speed and a terrifyingly heavy armament made it ideal for “bouncing” enemy planes then breaking off to evade any survivors.
Meanwhile, the British used the solid, and even more heavily armed, Bristol Beaufighter and its replacement, the famous de Havilland Mosquito. The Mosquito was so fast it didn’t need any defensive rear guns, was easily capable of taking down agile single-engine fighters, but still carried half the bombload of a B-17.
The USA lagged slightly in heavies, but when one did appear it was impressive – the P-38 Lightning. With good speed and a very long range, it was invaluable for hunting over the Pacific – pilots also liked the fact it had two engines, so a single failure wouldn’t drop them among the sharks – and, unlike most US fighters, had a cannon as well as its machineguns.
Heavy fighters carried more fuel than their single-engine counterparts and could lift a heavier weapon load – the Beaufighter had four cannon in the nose, six machineguns in the wings, a rear machinegun in a defensive mount, and racks for two bombs, eight rockets and a torpedo. Although they weren’t as agile as light fighters, their twin engines gave them more raw power, and they could dive away from almost anything. They were also the only fighters that could carry the early radar sets.
It’s range and weapon load that are persuading the USAF to look at heavy fighters again. The F-15C can carry a respectable armament and, despite stealth forcing it to use internal weapons bays, so can the F-22A. The F-35, on the other hand, is pathetic. Unless you hang external pylons on it and throw away its stealth – which means, given its sluggish performance, its chance of surviving – it can only carry two AIM-120 and two short-range AIM-9X or AIM-132 missiles. That’s barely enough for one short engagement, then it has to turn round and go home. On the other hand, the F-22 is only 30% heavier but carries twice as many missiles. It also has 33% more range, and can beat the F-35’s Mach 1.61 top speed by Mach 0.21 without even going to afterburner (with the burners lit the F-22A can hit Mach 2.25).
It’s obvious that adding 30% in weight has added a lot more than 30% extra capability, and the USAF is wondering if they could gain even more by another step up in size. There’s no reason why not. The F-35 weighs about 49,000 pounds at full load; the F-22A pushes 65,000. Stepping up to 90,000 pounds could double the weapon load again, and it wouldn’t be a ridiculous size for a fighter. Russia’s MiG-31BM has a full load weight of 90,400 pounds; it has almost double the F-22A’s range, and a top speed of Mach 2.83. A heavy fighter in that weight class, with the latest in US systems and stealth design, could be a real battle winner.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.