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A Return to Combat Mass? Modern LIFT/LCA Platforms to Complement the Fighter Fleet

Edward Hunt
RUSI Defence Systems, 9 September 2020
The acquisition of combat-capable lead-in fighter trainer/light combat aircraft types to complement traditional fast jet types across less demanding mission sets offers a potential route towards regenerating practical combat mass for medium-sized air forces.

Since 2014, the US Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet has been repeatedly threatened with disbandment in favour of the F-35. The two aircraft were certainly built to very different philosophies; the A-10 was intended to solve a specific mission with no frills or extraneous capability while the F-35 was envisaged as taking affordable multi-role capability to the next level. The A-10’s design philosophy prioritised numbers available at a given time with low flying cost, high mean time between failures and low mean time to repair. Almost exactly the reverse has been levelled at the F-35, not without reason: it is torn between several roles; it is expensive to operate; and the numbers actually available on a given day remain below General James Mattis’ targets. An argument could be made that for most air forces, an advanced F-16 or new Gripen E/F would be a more useful choice as a core fighter. They have no (costly and maintenance-heavy) low-radar-cross-section (RCS) skin but better kinetics and are probably cheaper to operate while requiring fewer specialist personnel and support. However, for those countries that have selected the F-35 or similar, what other options are available to ensure sufficient combat mass?

The 1990s saw many air forces gravitate towards the concept of a single fighter type. By contrast, the last decade has seen a convergence of factors pushing thinking back towards a multi-tier combat force. These include concerns over wasted budget and airframe hours spent bombing small targets, the limited availability of fleets and their flying hours, and the vulnerability of most armed UCAV designs. Like all aircraft, fighters can be in only one place at a time, and much of that time is spent on the ground or conducting flying training, quick reaction alert (QRA) or other limited operations. To address inadequate combat mass, their numbers arguably need augmenting by something good enough rather than expensive efforts to buy more of the same types.

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