Are we heading towards a return of the US Air Force's X programs?

During the 50s, 60s and 70s, the US Air Force developed, with DARPA and Lockheed's Skunk group, an impressive number of prototypes aimed at pushing the technological limits and theoretical knowledge of the country. These programs allowed the generation of aircraft ranging from the F14 to the F18 to appear, and to gain a strong technological ascendancy over the Soviet camp. At the end of the 80s, this technological advantage was at its highest, and proved decisive during the first Gulf War and the Desert Storm air campaign.

With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the need for a technological race disappeared, and the United States, like the Europeans, settled into a much longer pace of technological progress. Where the F15 program was developed in less than 5 years, the F22 program took 10, and the F35 program 15 years. In France, the development of the next generation of combat aircraft, the FCAS program, is planned over a period exceeding 20 years. With the assurance of having air superiority in all contexts, and the absence of marked operational needs, the research programs, like combat aircraft, were spread out over time, to the point that now, the duration The expected lifespan of a combat aircraft exceeds 40 years, whereas it did not exceed 7 to 10 years in the 60s.

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Boeing's X36 prototype

It seems that this situation is now over, and that a return to a much shorter industrial and technological cycle is necessary. In any case, this is what Will Roper, the deputy secretary for acquisitions of the US Air Force, expressed during a forum held on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show. According to him, the United States must return to planning in increments of 5 years, so as to be able to respond to technological developments observed or caused. In addition, he considers that it is necessary to relaunch the dynamic of X programs, so as to maintain or re-acquire technological supremacy which is now contested.

This value of 5 years is not arbitrary: it is the average duration separating 2 Chinese combat aircraft programs over the past 30 years. Today, China produces a new device every 5 years, and a new generation every 20 years. This is how Chinese industry was able to move, between 1990 and today, from a technological situation marking 20 years behind Western technologies, to the situation of technological balance prevailing today. As such, several testimonies indicated that a new prototype attack aircraft took to the air last week, once again respecting the rhythm of 5 years. This aircraft is probably the successor to the JH-7, an attack aircraft very inspired by the Su24, which entered service in the early 90s.

As soon as a country, especially when it has the means of China, commits to an acceleration of Defense technological cycles, this pace must be imposed on all the players who wish to maintain a credible offer in the years to come. come. Will Roper's call is, in this respect, reminiscent of that made by GIFAS in 2016, calling for an increase in the army's equipment and research budget to €24 billion (€10 billion today). today), and the establishment of a prototype development program to constitute the technological building blocks to accelerate and make combat aircraft programs more reliable in the decades to come.

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