Chinese hypersonic test, a DARPA project and, of course, the Wedgetail were among this year’s most popular reports. (Graphic by Breaking Defense. Original photo credit:  U.S. Air Force/Renae Pittman)

WASHINGTON: Breaking Defense is honored to count among its readers key policymakers, practitioners and top industry officials in the sprawling world of defense — those in the know, for whom JADC2 is not some inscrutable acronym but something totally logical to say to one another. With that comes a great gift for reporters: we are less concerned about general traffic and more concerned about who our readers are.

But every now and then a story hits a more general nerve and readers the world over are drawn to some original, in-depth reporting or analysis on the critical topics of the day. The list below is a reflection of the latter, the most popular stories on the site for 2021. Popular perhaps because the story explains a complex subject clearly and authoritatively (the Chinese FOBS story), breaks fresh news (potential declassification of a space weapon) or for far less serious reasons (looking at you, DARPA turducken).

China’s J-35 carrier fighter appears; Step to ‘most powerful navy’?

By far the story that made the biggest splash, numbers-wise, for Breaking Defense this year was a report on China’s new J-35 stealth fighter and its appearance at an aircraft carrier building in Wuhan, years after it made its debut at a 2014 Chinese air expo.

Breaking Defense’s Reuben Johnson reported that the plane is “not just a major step in the Chinese industry’s march to create a modern carrier force, but is a two-generation leap beyond the PLAN’s initial choice for a carrier-capable fighter aircraft […] the J-15.”

Exclusive: Pentagon poised to unveil, demonstrate classified space weapon 

In August, Breaking Defense’s Theresa Hitchens reported exclusively that top Pentagon officials had been working for months to declassify a mysterious space weapon and to provide a real-world demonstration of its capabilities.

At the time the push was led by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, who recently retired, but had been delayed by the White House.

SOCOM to test anti-aging pill next year

2022 could be a banner year for US Special Operations Command, if not for secret missions, than for an expected experiment with anti-aging technology. In June, Hitchens reported that SOCOM planned to test a pill in the next year that “has the potential, if it is successful, to truly delay aging, truly prevent onset of injury — which is just amazingly game changing,” according to Lisa Sanders, director of science and technology for Special Operations Forces, acquisition, technology & logistics.

“These efforts are not about creating physical traits that don’t already exist naturally,” SOCOM spokesperson Him Hawkins said then. “This is about enhancing the mission readiness of our forces by improving performance characteristics that typically decline with age.”

Roper hints NGAD could replace F-35; Why? Life-cycle costs

At the beginning of 2021, then-out-going Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper made news when he said the F-35, the most expensive weapons system in history, was still a “long way from being at a sustainment point that we need.”

In another report by Hitchens, Roper argued why the Air Force needs to keep investing to develop its Next-Generation Air Dominance platform — aka, it’s next-gen fighter plan — not just as a newer, better fighter, but as a “completely different acquisition paradigm.”

It’s a FOBS, Space Force’s Saltzman confirms amid Chinese weapons test confusion 

Fall of 2021 was a very confusing time for anyone trying to make heads or tails out of news, which first appeared in the Financial Times, that the Chinese government had tested an orbital hypersonic weapon, much to the surprise of US intelligence.

Appearing once again, Hitchens noted that experts had their doubts about exactly what happened. So it was news when Space Force’s Lt. Gen. Chance (Salty) Saltzman spoke plainly about what the test, confirming that it was a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS).

Aussies to pick ‘mature’ nuke sub design; Is UK’s Astute class frontrunner? 

The announcement of a new security partnership between the US, the UK and Australia, dubbed AUKUS, was a surprise not just to the very upset nation of France, but to naval experts as well. A key provision in the partnership was that the US would provide tech for nuclear powered submarines for Australia’s navy.

But one question still lingers: what kind of subs would the Aussies build? In this report, Breaking Defense Indo-Pacific Bureau Chief Colin Clark collected analysis that pointed to a likely choice for design: the British Astute-class sub.

DARPA’s aerial turducken, the LongShot, still cooking towards 2022 milestone 

I have no one else to blame for this one than myself. For the Thanksgiving holiday this year, I half-jokingly asked some of the staff about which weapons system most resembled that culinary monstrosity, the turducken, and Breaking Defense’s Air and Pentagon reporter Valerie Insinna pointed me to DARPA’s Longshot program, which kicked off in February.

The project involves a plane launching a drone that itself launches missiles. As of November, the agency told us that preliminary designs are expected next year from contracting giants General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. Much like the turducken itself, the story started as something of an absurdity and took on a life of its own. I apologize to our readers.

Future Tank: Beyond the M1 Abrams

So what does come next for the Army after the Reagan-era M1 Abrams tank? That’s the question Breaking Defense’s Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. asked in April. At the time Maj. Gen. Richard Ross Coffman, the Army’s modernization director, gave a vague answer: “Everything is on the table at this point.”

So Freedberg turned to a myriad of experts, who all agreed that even if the future is trending towards unmanned options, armored fighting vehicles like tanks would still have a place.

Two stories on the Air Force’s interest in the Wedgetail to replace the E-3

In what’s become something of a running joke in the Breaking Defense (virtual) office, it turns out that people love to read about the Wedgetail. That’s why two of the top 10 stories from this year are about the Air Force’s apparent interest in buying the platform to replace the decades-old E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes.

The first story dealt with the Air Force ordering a study of the plane’s capabilities, and the second was about how Boeing, the contractor that makes the Wedgetail, was “very confident” the Air Force would pick its bird, according to a top company official. Breaking Defense’s Valerie Insinna wrote both reports and will be all over the Wedgetail beat for the foreseeable future.

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