US prods industry for F-22 fighter successor ideas
* Air Force wants new manned fighter ready in about 2030
* Eyes power to counter missiles, directed energy weapons
* "Anti-access/area-denial" capability hints at China
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force has begun peering into the far blue yonder for a futuristic aircraft to replace Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) F-22 fighter, a move that has cheered the aerospace industry.
The Air Force in a written solicitation this week sought concepts for a next-generation tactical aircraft to begin operating in roughly 2030, apparently with a pilot aboard.
Experts cast such a system as a would-be successor to the radar-evading F-22 Raptor, the top U.S. air superiority fighter. The single-seat, twin-engine F-22 was designed as a response to Soviet combat aircraft in the 1980s and is barred by law from export to protect its "stealth" technology.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates persuaded Congress to cap its production at 187 last year as Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is designed to be less costly, entered early production.
The next-generation system will have to counter foes equipped for electronic attack with sophisticated air defenses, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons and cyber attack capabilities, the Air Force Materiel Command said in its notice to industry dated Nov. 3.
The new aircraft must be able to operate in the "anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 timeframe," the solicitation said, using Pentagon jargon often applied to China's growing military clout.
The primary mission, it said, would be offensive and defensive "counterair" -- destroying or neutralizing an enemy's ability to control the skies. The Air Force also wants to incorporate missile defense, air interdiction and close air support of ground forces, according to the "capability request for information."
"This is the first step in figuring out what the specifications might be for the next generation of U.S. fighters," said Jeremiah Gertler, an expert on U.S. military aviation at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The Aerospace Industries Association, the industry's chief trade and lobbying group, welcomed the feeler as critical to keeping a U.S. technology edge at a time that no new manned warplanes are in design.
"Unless new manned aerospace programs start soon, America's capability to design and build future manned combat aircraft will atrophy and threaten the aerospace technological superiority that has long been the hallmark of our national security," Fred Downey, the group's vice president for national security, said in an emailed reply to Reuters.
Embarking on an analysis for a new tactical aircraft "can't come too soon," he added.
But Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group aerospace consultancy said Pentagon budget pressures meant there would not be a "significant stream of (research and development) cash for a next-generation aircraft for another ten years, at least."
Still, such a project suggests that Boeing Co (BA.N), the Pentagon's No. 2 supplier after Lockheed, might be able to stay in the fighter business long enough to compete for it, he said, assuming exports can keep its fighter know-how alive as the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps buy F-35s in large numbers.
"In short, they (Boeing) might not be forced to abandon this market," Aboulafia said in an email.
The Air Force in its wish list for the futuristic warplane cited greater reach, persistence, survivability, situational awareness, weapons effects and "human-system integration."
Responses to the request are due by Dec. 17 and interested parties "are encouraged to submit cost data if available," said the request on FedBizOpps.gov, a clearinghouse for federal contracting opportunities. (Editing by Gary Hill)
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