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As the Defense Department seeks funding to develop a sixth-generation fighter, the Air Force and Navy appear to have differing opinions on the importance of stealth, while a top contractor on Wednesday called low observability for the future fighter "foundational."
The discussion stems from comments last month by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told a Washington audience Feb. 4 that stealth might be "overrated" for future fighters.
"What does that next strike fighter look like?" Greenert asked a Washington forum early this month. "I'm not sure if it's manned, don't know that it is. You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated. … Let's face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat – I don't care how cool the engine can be, it's going to be detectable."
The Defense Department's fiscal 2016 budget request includes is starting funding for the sixth generation fighter with money for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the fiscal 2016 budget request to "develop prototypes for the next generation of air dominance platforms," Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told a Senate panel in late January.
Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, told reporters Feb. 12 said that stealth will be "hugely important" for the next-generation Air Force fighter, but it will also important will be how the next aircraft integrates its sensors, and its command and control capabilities, that will prove its importance.
"Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth," Carlisle said told reporters Feb. 12 at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. "You have to have fusion, you have to have different capabilities across the spectrum.
"It will be incredibly important. It won't be the only key attribute, and it isn't today."
The Air Force has enjoyed a stealth advantage in its fleet for more than 30 years, since the F-117 Nighthawk first flew in 1981. Since then, however, potential adversaries have improved radars and anti-air systems, meaning the Air Force needs to continue its development.
"Folks are starting to work on it and how to counter it, and will continue to do that," Carlisle said. "It's still important."
The Air Force's focus on stealth is more than low observable, it is this combination that will be needed in future development, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said at a January State of the Air Force briefing at the Pentagon.
"It's also speed, low observability, different ways of collecting data, different ways of transmitting and protecting transmissions,' Welsh said. "It is a way of breaking kill chains, if you're sitting in an airplane or flying an unmanned aircraft. … As long as we break the kill chain sometime between when you arrive in the battle space and when the enemy weapon approaches your airplane, you're successful at using stealth."
Lockheed Martin's famed Skunk Works program, responsible for developing the stealth characteristics of the F-22, F-35, along with the F-117 and SR-71, sees stealth, especially low-observable technology, as "absolutely foundational" to aircraft design, both now and in the future, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and Skunk Works general manager Rob Weiss told Air Force Times during an interview Feb. 18.
"I can assure you all future aircraft will continue to be grounded in stealth capability for survivability purposes," Weiss said. "When we look out at threat projections, and recognizing the capability we are developing today, we are going to continue to build stealth aircraft for the foreseeable future."