“I am an aspiring fighter pilot, and was wondering what our inventory may look like in ten years or further into the future, and what will be different in the life of a fighter pilot and the path to becoming one?” ~Jackson D., South Carolina

Great question, Jackson! Of course, it is a tough one to answer for a couple of reasons. First, many of the developments going on by the Pentagon and defense contractors are classified. For example, the F-117 wasn’t known to the public despite the fact that it had been flying for years before IOC. There was no way that I could have written an article on that aircraft because few people knew it was even designed (it also would’ve been hard for me to write about it since it IOC’d over 4 years before I was born).

The second reason your question is difficult to answer is that while there are long-range plans for the inventories of the services, there is no way to predict how everything will play out with budget cuts and “force shaping.”

A Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor cranks through a 9-G turn at .92 Mach over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
A Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor cranks through a 9-G turn at .92 Mach over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (Photo by Scott Wolff)

For example, the original vision for the F-22 was to have 750 built, but by the end 187 ended up joining the inventory before the production line closed. As much as we want it, we just don’t have that crystal ball–and we don’t have the resources to make things what they ought to be, from our perspective.

That being said, I can point you to the official documentation that points to what the future might look like: The USAF’s version and the Naval Aviation vision.

What I can tell you are some broad generalities of what we know the future might look like. The future of aerial combat will be very “network-centric.” High speed datalinks between tactical assets as well as Command and Control (C2) platforms will be essential in the war of the future. Even in close air support missions, JTACs are engaging in digital CAS more and more as we march towards the future. Tomorrow’s fighter pilot will definitely need to be tech saavy and be able to quickly and effectively use these networks. Cyberwarfare and Cybersecurity will become more integral in aviation, particularly with the rise of drones.

The fighter inventories will be very F-35 centric. The F-35 is going to replace the USAF’s F-16s, USN’s F/A-18 legacy hornets, and the USMC’s AV-8B Harriers. JSF will be the name of the game for a long time, however there will still be F-15s, F/A-18 Super Hornets, and F-22s in the inventory for the foreseeable future.

There are many upgrades coming outside the fighter community as well. The KC-46 will be replacing the KC-135 in the tanker community. Northrop Grumman’s B-21 won the LRS-B competition and will be a mainstay in the bomber community in the future. Other aircraft such as the C-130J Hercules will continue to see production well into the future as they continue to upgrade and evolve an already successful airframe. Sometimes the old adage is true that if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Air Force Releases List of B-21 Subcontractors!
B-21 Long Range Strike-Bomber courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

It’s not just the Air Force that’s evolving. Naval Aviation has come a long way over the decades. Back in the day, an airwing may have had A-4s, A-7s, F-4s, F-14s, H-60s, H-3s and E-2s. In other words, many different types of aircraft. Today, all you’ll see is some variant of Hornet or Growler, as well as the E-2s and H-60s. In the future, expect to see Rhinos and F-35C’s side by side on the flight decks of our carriers (themselves being upgraded to the Gerald R. Ford Class). The venerable C-2 Greyhound is going to retire and be replaced by the V-22 Osprey.

All of this discussion has been about manned aircraft, but you should expect unmanned aircraft numbers to rise every year. The demand to train UAV pilots has increased so much that the Air Force is actually training more UAV pilots than traditional fighter pilots.

Speaking of training, I’d expect a LOT more time in the simulator than in years past. The F-22 and F-35 don’t have two seat trainer variants, meaning that your very first flight in those jets will be solo. Of course, you would have been put through the ringer in the sim before that first flight, but it is definitely a mindset shift over traditional training.

The path to become a fighter pilot will probably change little in both the Air Force and Navy. The academic and physical requirements will still be very high, possibly even more so if the force shrinks due to budget cuts. While some training jets may change (such as the T-X program), the way training is conducted will likely be very similar.

This was a great yet challenging question from one of our readers. Keep ‘em coming!

(Featured photo by Jonathan Derden)