The United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Russia and China are all in early planning stages for a so-called “sixth generation” of fighter jets. The jets won’t fly until the 2030s, but governments around the world are already exploring, a conceptualized class of fighter aircraft design more advanced than the fifth-generation jet fighters which are currently in service. One criteria for a 6th Generation aircraft would be the ability to overcome anti-air defense systems (missiles, decoys, etc.). The next criterion could be a disproportionately higher speed of the fighter compared to previous generations of machines.
The need of next generation aircrafts has arisen because of many factors: advanced anti-air defense systems (missiles, decoys, etc.) like S-400 being fielded , advancement in counter stealth technologies , directed energy weapons and hypersonic technologies. The air defenses of potential adversaries are increasingly using faster computing processing power and are better networked together, more digital, able to detect a wider range of frequencies and able to detect stealthy aircraft at farther distances.
In 2009, Air Force Magazine tried to define fighter generations and suggested sixth generation features such as extreme stealth, morphing capability, smart skins, highly networked, extremely sensitive sensors, optionally manned and directed energy weapons. These Fighter jets may likely contain the next-generation of stealth technology, electronic warfare, sophisticated computer processing and algorithms, increased autonomy, hypersonic weapons and so-called “smart-skins” where sensors are built into the side of the aircraft itself.
Analysts have speculated that as 6th generation developers seek to engineer a sixth-generation aircraft, they will likely explore a range of next-generation technologies such as maximum sensor connectivity, super cruise ability and an aircraft with electronically configured “smart skins.” Super cruise technology would enable the new fighter jet to cruise at supersonic speeds without needing afterburner, analysts have explained. The new 6th-generation fighter will also likey fire lasers and have the ability to launch offensive electronic attacks.
Chris Hernandez, Northrop’s vice president for research, technology and advanced design, laid out the basic parameters for the sixth-gen fighter (Northrop refers to it as NG Air Dominance): it must boast long range because it’s unlikely to have many bases to operate from overseas; it must “carry a lot of weapons;” survivability will be key. The service wants to cut down on the amount of mid-air refueling, he said. Fighters, which are traditionally small and compact, often have less space for extra fuel, he noted.
“We think it’s going to have to be long range, for sure,” he said. “If you look at almost any part of the world, even in the Middle East, and look at some of the distances required and the tankers required, we would like to have a fighter with a longer range probably than the standard 500 miles that we have today.”
Since the end of the Cold War, combat aircraft have had the luxury of operating from bases that are close to the enemy, like in Iraq, said Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. In the future, where enemies have precision-guided weapons like cruise or ballistic missiles, those bases could be at high risk.
Maximum connectivity would mean massively increased communications and sensor technology such as having an ability to achieve real-time connectivity with satellites, other aircraft and anything that could provide relevant battlefield information. US Air Force Penetrating Counter Air/NGAD program is equally focused on information exchange itself as a defining element of future war. Such an approach, looking beyond isolated systems and weapons themselves, envisions expansive “networked” combat with war platforms operating as “nodes” in a larger warfare system of weapons and sensors working together in real time.
“This approach is one that views military operations in terms of wholistic elements of an information-shooter-effector complex. That will require a lot more going into the design of the next generation of combat aircraft than how fast and far it can fly – or what the numbers of weapons it can carry,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former planner of the US air attacks in Operation Desert Storm
Stealth will also be a key requirement, he added. It “is the price of admission in future conflicts.” Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, said that stealth will continue to be hugely important.” “Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth,” Carlisle said, according to the Air Force Times. They require new super stealthy features without compromising performance.
CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert said “I don’t see that it’s going to be super-duper fast, because you can’t outrun missiles,” and stealth may be overrated. In lieu of stealth and speed, Greenert said that the F/A-XX would gain access by deploying “a spectrum of weapons” that could suppress enemy air defenses.
Smart aircraft skins would involve dispersing certain technologies or sensors across the fuselage and further integrating them into the aircraft itself, using next-generation computer algorithms to organize and diplay information for the pilot. Smart skins with distributed electronics means that instead of having systems mounted on the aircraft, you would have apertures integrated on the skin of the aircraft, analysts have said. “Smart sensors and smart antenna arrays with adaptive properties would be embedded into the structure of an aircraft,” an essay from Jain University’s International Institute for Aerospace Engineering states. ( “Sensor Technology and Futuristic Of Fighter Aircraft, “ Jain Univ). This could reduce drag, increase speed and maneuverability while increasing the technological ability of the sensors.
The F-35 has pioneered sophisticated Helmet Mounted Displays that can see ‘through’ the airframe for superior situational awareness, display key instrument data, and target missiles via a Helmet Mounted Sight . These helmets will likely become a standard feature in future fighters, possibly supplanting cockpit instrument panels. Voice-activated command interfaces may also ease the hefty task-load expected of fighter pilots.
Artificial intelligence will likely play a role, sorting data and analyzing threats to reduce the pilot’s workload. The sensors, avionics and weapons systems will be increasingly AI-reliant, which makes it easier to greatly improve performance by integrating new algorithms, analytics or processing speed. For instance, “smart sensors” able to gather, analyze and organize vast volumes of combat information in milliseconds, and massively quickening the human decision cycle.
They will be operating with ever-increasing levels of autonomy. Algorithms can integrate new information, instantly compare it against vast amounts of stored data, and come to informed conclusions without requiring human intervention. It is expected that the aircraft will be able to independently carry out combat missions. That is, the plane will be completely self-contained artificial Intelligence (AI), which the management will not be carried out from the control center continuously, as in the case of modern UAVs. This will include “swarming” technology that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to hit its targets,”That is, the operator will only specify the target object to destroy and how to destroy them, the aircraft will solve itself,” – said one of the developers of AI systems for aviation. Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper from his previous role directing the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, saying “AI is progressing beyond the human ability to interface with it.”
Directed Energy Weapons
Beyond-visual-range missiles will remain a key technology. Extent missiles like the AIM-120D can already hit targets over one hundred miles away, but realistically must be fired much closer to have a good chance of a kill against an agile, fighter-sized target. However, new ramjet-powered high-speed air-to-air missiles like the British Meteor and Chinese PL-15 point to why future air warriors may mostly fight at great distances from their adversaries.
While kinetic weapons will be critical, there is also a need for electronic weapons, Sterling Anderson, deputy chief of Air Combat Command’s air superiority core function team said. Cyber capabilities, offensively and defensively, will be necessary in the future as the United States faces more advanced adversaries, he said. Emerging technology such as directed energy weapons might be one way to obtain a deeper magazine, he noted.
U.S. arms-maker Lockheed Martin is developing a laser that could be small enough to arm a future, “sixth-generation” fighter plane, company officials told reporters on May 1, 2019. “A laser has obvious advantages. It could be more accurate than a gun is. A fighter could fire many more laser shots than it could carry missiles, potentially boosting the plane’s magazine depth. But it could be a long while before a new laser-armed fighter takes flight.”
Air Force Research Laboratory has released a request for information (RFI) for a laser weapon that could be mounted on next-generation air dominance fighters by the 2030s. The Air Force is interested in three categories of lasers: low-power for illuminating, tracking, targeting, and defeating enemy sensors; moderate-power for protection to destroy incoming missiles; and high-power to offensively engage enemy aircraft and ground targets.
One of the keys to this new weapon, which is in the earliest stages of head-scratching and planning, will be heat management. As Northrop president for aerospace Tom Vice noted, lasers operate at 33 percent efficiency when all goes well. That means there’s enormous heat to dissipate and that will be just from the lasers.
Add in all the aircraft’s power and thrust systems, and you have an enormous heat challenge. It needs to be managed on a system level because of the aircraft’s assumed low observable requirements, Hernandez told COLIN CLARK. The level of complexity will make this aircraft something like an advanced satellite, where electromagnetic interference, heat offload and power requirements pose compelling and existential challenges to the system.
One major problem the Pentagon must confront is protecting aircraft data and lines of communications in a world where cyber hacking is the norm. The government can’t thwart every cyber attack — instead, it must be able to detect the intrusion and prevent damage, Vice said. The next generation of air dominance will leverage a digital version of a white blood cell, able to inoculate a system to prevent a cyber infection from spreading, Vice said.
A future fighter fleet could include a mix of manned and autonomous aircraft, lead by a “mission commander” who directs the unmanned assets, Hernandez said. But mindless robots can’t replace the human brain, which does not require software installations to adapt to new information, Vice pointed out. Northrop is working to design software that can not only learn and evolve, but has a set of values necessary to make real-time decisions, he said.
“Large Bomber,” suggest Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)
The next-generation U.S. Air Force fighter should be larger and more resembling a bomber than a small, maneuverable traditional fighter, concluded a report from Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). After analyzing over 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965 it found that long-range weapons and sensors have dramatically decreased instances of dogfighting. With the increase of air defense systems using electronic and infrared sensors and high-speed weapons, traditional designs relying on small size, high speed, and maneuverability may be less relevant and easier to intercept.
As a result, the CSBA suggests building a fighter significantly larger relying on enhanced sensors, signature control, networked situational awareness, and very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked. Larger planes would have greater range that would enable them to be stationed further from a combat zone, have greater radar and IR detection capabilities, and carry bigger and longer-range missiles. One airframe could be fitted with various attachments to fill several roles. The concept of a small number of large, intercontinental and heavily-armed combat aircraft could link itself to the development of the Long Range Strike Bomber.
Not Fighter but Swarm of Drones
Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said the sixth-generation aircraft might not actually be a fighter jet. “It could be a swarm of” drones, he said. “It could be missile trucks that don’t look anything like current fighter aircraft but operate at much longer ranges.”
It can be extremely expensive to try and put capability on top of capability on an airframe while also making it as stealthy as possible, he said. Officials and experts are mulling over whether it is a better payoff to disaggregate some capabilities and reduce vulnerability to losses by distributing the various parts of a fighter in a more networked approach, he said.
DARPA’s Systems of Systems
DARPA’s System of Systems Integration Technology and Experimentation program aims to disaggregate aircraft capabilities into a swarm of cooperative, low cost expendable air vehicles to operate in this A2/AD environment. Prabhakar says that DARPA has “very deliberately” chosen a “systems approach” to the problem. “This is not a question about what does the next aircraft look like, this is a question about what are all the capabilities that it will take, layered together, in order to really comprehensively extend air superiority,” she says.
Open architecture design is also favored, being able to plug different sensors, different payloads and weapons to enable multiple different missions on different days, or different sorties. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations says “Getting the right payload in the right place, at the right time is also critical.” Most importantly, a 6th generation fighter should be affordable using Off-the-shelf technology whenever possible. It should not be too expensive to build, maintain and upgrade, too expensive to fly, or so overly complicated that it never gets out of development future needs.
The Navy likewise is exploring technologies that could contribute to future air-combat missions, but the fleet hasn’t committed to developing a new fighter. “In terms of technologies, the Navy is considering trades to balance capability, affordability and survivability across a [family of systems] and not limiting the analysis to a single aircraft to meet future threats,” Navy lieutenant Lauren Chatmas told Defense News. “Some important areas of consideration include derivative and developmental air vehicle designs, advanced engines, propulsion, weapons, mission systems, electronic warfare systems and numerous other emerging technologies and concepts.”
USAF builds 6th generation fighter with Digital Engineering reported in Sep 2020
In Sep 2016, The US Air Force revealed that it has built and successfully flown a demonstration version of a new sixth-generation fighter jet. During a presentation at the annual Air Force Association conference, Roper mentioned the successful flight demonstration almost in passing. More interesting to him is the design process that led up to the production of the first airplane: It is the first major system to be produced via digital engineering.
The approach involves building an “eSystem” — a digital version of the real-world system the military plans to produce — and testing, prototyping and adapting it in a virtual world before the first physical system is ever built. The result, Roper said, is that the first real-world version that rolls off the assembly line is as good as the 100th would be under a more traditional acquisition and design approach. Roper said the “eSystem” approach would become the Air Force’s standard way of doing business from now on. Also, he released a how-to guide for “digital acquisition” to push his own workforce in that direction.
“Why would I ever want to create a new program where we didn’t go build an e-system? It’s truly magical,” he said. “It’s letting us do things I would have never thought of doing in the past, like killing the assembly learning curve. In the past, that was just accepted like a law of the universe — people have to get better at doing things, and the only way to get better at doing them is by doing them. Well, now you can get better by ‘e-doing’ them. You can digitally learn. And I’ve watched it now. It’s not hypothetical.” Roper sees the digital design model as a very promising cure to a deep, underlying problem in the Air Force’s acquisition system that he’s repeatedly complained about during his time as assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Air Force Acquisition Executive Dr. William Roper recently published a paper about digital engineering and regularly mentions how it is fast-changing the acquisition landscape through programs such as the new 6th-Gen aircraft.and regularly mentions how it is fast-changing the acquisition landscape through programs such as the new 6th-Gen aircraft.
Today, new aircraft programs only come along every decade or two, and they’re enormous. Programs like the F-35 require vast amounts of up-front investment by competing bidders, partly because they’re expected to serve the military for decades and because they’re so high-stakes. Roper said that’s the biggest reason 70% of the Air Force’s acquisition budget is tied up in sustaining old weapons systems instead of buying new ones.
“The AI algorithm gets to learn from the digital simulator itself – that’s why this is such a powerful model. These digitally-engineered systems can produce learning at machine speeds,” Roper said. “So as we bring AI into the force, these digital environments are going to have even more value. If we’re training AI at real-world speeds, we will lose. We have to train much, much faster than real time. So this even transcends where we are today, building things better. It’s going to ultimately be a foundational layer that enables us to finally start bringing in AI as a competitive domain in the military.”
References and Resources also include: