The F-22 Raptor is already the most lethal fighter jet ever built, severely outclassing virtually every other aircraft of a similar class fielded by the rest of the world's air forces.
But with the advent of newer anti-aircraft defense systems, stealth-defeating tracking technologies and the entrance of countries such as China and Russia into the stealth fighter foray, the F-22 will eventually need to be replaced with something even more powerful.
With the looming retirement of the F-15C/D Eagle, its secondary air superiority fighter, in the next decade, the Air Force has begun taking strides towards designing the F-22's follow-on in order to maintain its combat edge over every other air force in the world.
Throughout the USAF's history, each of its fighter jets have built upon the aircraft they replaced, incorporating lessons learned and proven concepts, while expanding on their capabilities with new technology and methods of prosecuting aerial combat. The F-22's replacement, currently known as "Penetrating Counter Air," will take shape in much the same way.
A 6th generation fighter concept developed by Boeing for the US Navy (Photo Boeing)
It will likely be highly stealthy, carrying its weapons internally in order to minimize radar detection. It will also probably be supersonic, and able to actively defeat enemy sensors in a similar manner to the F-22 and F-35.
Among the most noticeable differences between the F-22 and its replacement will be the lack of tails. Every American fighter jet ever built has featured one or two vertical stabilizers which, as their names suggest, provide stability and yaw control in flight.
Instead, the PCA will likely remove the vertical stabilizers altogether to enhance stealth by decreasing the aircraft's overall radar signature. The end result will look more like a sleeker and faster B-2 Spirit or a X-47B drone, instead of something similar to the twin-tailed F-35 Lightning II, or the single-tailed F-16 Fighting Falcon.
An F-22 banking away after refueling in midair with a KC-135 Stratotanker (Photo US Air Force)
Additionally, the new fighter be built for long-range missions — especially escorting larger bomber aircraft like the B-2, or the upcoming B-21 Raider, deep behind the front lines to strike at the heart of the enemy's war machine. This is a much-needed capability the USAF has sorely lacked for decades.
The PCA will be designed to work alongside the F-35 Lightning II, with both aircraft drawing upon each other's strengths while mitigating weaknesses in capability. Given that the Air Force plans on retaining its F-16 Fighting Falcon fleet long for years and years to come, the PCA will likely also be capable of working with older "legacy" aircraft.
One of the key focal points of the PCA program will be developing an engine that gives the new fighter unprecedented range, while maximizing operational fuel efficiency.
The PCA program seeks nearly $300 million in funding from Congress over the next few years in order to complete its research and analysis goals while developing and investigating new technologies that will make the F-22's replacement arguably the deadliest and most powerful fighter aircraft ever conceived.