The U.S. Air Force has re-initiated a program to acquire a fighter sized unmanned aircraft with stealth capabilities, which will be used as a target drone to improve the fleet’s capabilities to engage enemy stealth fighters. The firm Advanced Technology International received a $77.2 million contract to develop a 5th Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) prototype, which was first publicly announced on the System for Award Management contracting website. With existing target drones being poorly suited to simulating the capabilities of stealth aircraft, the new drone is vital to testing a wide range of new systems such as the radars on new generations of air to air missiles. They can also play important roles in training pilots by simulating threats, which has gained growing attention resulting in the U.S. Air Force forming an aggressor training unit with F-35 stealth fighters to simulate similar kinds of aircraft fielded by adversaries – the 65th Aggressor Squadron. With F-35s being few and far between, however, and having significantly higher operational costs than unmanned stealth aircraft, the new drone will provide a means to train more units across the fleet to engage stealth targets.
Developing a new target drone comes at a time when Russia has yet to field a single full strength unit of stealth fighters, and is over 20 years behind original Soviet projections for deploying fifth generation aircraft as its first MiG 1.42 unit was expected to be fielded in 2001. China, however, has emerged as the only major operator of indigenous fifth generation fighters other than the United States, with its J-20 fighter seeing production surged to 100-120 aircraft per year and fielding avionics that are rivalled only by the F-35’s in sophistication. The aircraft is by far the most capable fielded by a potential U.S. adversary, and is considered by a growing number of analysts to be the world’s premier air superiority fighter – both as capabilities have improved rapidly and as the avionics of its American rival the F-22 Raptor have fallen further behind. A new variant, the J-20B, benefits from superior stealth capabilities and a new WS-15 engine for a much-improved performance, while continued and increasingly serious issues with the F-35’s own engine has led to a long debate over the need for a replacement to phase it out of service. The J-20 and the F-35 had their first encounter confirmed in March 2022, with the Chinese aircraft increasingly deployed for maritime patrols that year. The J-20 has the advantage of a much higher speed, altitude ceiling, and climb rate, a supercruise capability, much greater manoeuvrability and a much larger radar and missile arsenal than the F-35, as well as longer ranged air to air missiles in both the visual and beyond visual range classes.
As the J-20’s stealth capabilities have continued to improve, China is expected to place more stealth aircraft into service including the lighter FC-31 fighter developed for the navy, and possibly a much lighter single engine aircraft for its export clients. With J-20s set to be acquired from 2024 at around 250 percent the rate that the U.S. Air Force acquires F-35s, with the latter service’s orders cut to just 48 per year, the Chinese program has placed growing pressure on the American fleet and added a greater urgency to train against stealth targets. A range of new equipment developed specifically to engage fifth generation targets, such as the new AIM-260 air to air missile, is also expected to benefit significantly from the availability of stealthy target drones for testing. While the Air Force previously modified retired F-16 fourth generation fighters to serve as target drones, including for testing the AIM-260, no similar program is expected to be viable for its scarce fifth generation fighters for at least several decades which makes investment in purpose built target drones all the more important.