The U.S. Air Force is planning to purchase a new long-range fighter that would accompany the forthcoming B-21 Raider stealth bomber deep into enemy territory. The new fighter, of which few details are known, would help the bomber survive enemy air defenses. The new fighter, known as "Penetrating Counter-Air" (PCA) was revealed during the Air Force Association's 2016 annual conference and by Breaking Defense.
According to that report, wargames have revealed the B-21 cannot penetrate as far as western China to destroy missiles and installations there. Those missiles will play a vital role in defending China, and by extension the Western Pacific, in any future conflict. The SRF is fielding ballistic missiles with increasingly long ranges, not only to threaten targets farther out in the Pacific but to also place them deep within China, behind layered air defenses. China's anti-ship ballistic missile has recently been supplanted with a longer ranged missile. Even longer-ranged systems are an eventuality.
In a hypothetical war, the B-21 would play a role in "rolling back" enemy defenses, striking deep into China to destroy systems such as the DF-26. That in turn will give American forces, particularly aircraft carriers, freer reign to operate closer to China.
This PCA fighter would assist the Air Force's new bomber by flying nearby and shooting down any enemy fighters that might threaten the B-21s. The new fighter might also be equipped with standoff missiles to attack enemy ground-based air defenses, freeing up space in B-21s for ordnance to attack primary targets. The concept is similar to the long-ranged fighter of World War II, which accompanied B-17 raids over Germany and kept Luftwaffe Messerschmitts fighters at bay.
PCA is envisioned as operational by the 2030s. That's intriguing, because it means there could be four Air Force fighters flying in the mid-2030s: the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the upcoming , and the Penetrating Counter-Air.
What would PCA look like? The aircraft's design would likely be driven by two main factors: long range and stealth. PCA would need long range to accompany the B-21 and stealth to survive over hostile territory. It would use its radar and infrared sensors to destroy enemy fighters at beyond visual range, so it needn't be a dogfighter. A fighter-sized flying wing design, even something that looks like a miniature B-21, is a possibility. A flying wing could conceal lots of internal volume for weapons and fuel. A slightly redesigned F-22 Raptor with carefully designed conformal fuel tanks—so as to not "break" the plane's stealth—could also be a PCA candidate.
Whatever the eventual design, PCA may be the Air Force's most daring concept in decades.