What to Expect from Sixth-Gen Aircraft
Illustration: Scott Rekdal / Turbosquid
The United States and several European nations are pursuing next-generation fighters. While many details are closely held or are still being fleshed out, a picture is starting to emerge of the capabilities they will possess.
A mockup of a Franco-German-Spanish stealth jet, part of the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June. It came about a year after the United Kingdom displayed a model of a Tempest platform at the Farnborough Air Show. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. Air Force and Navy are planning to develop their own “next-generation air dominance” capabilities.
Survivability against sophisticated enemy air defenses is expected to be a key requirement of sixth-generation systems that might have to square off against advanced adversaries such as China or Russia.
“It has to be able to penetrate the worst potential defenses we could be up against,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a recent interview with National Defense.
The U.S. Air Force’s “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan” outlined a need for a new “penetrating counter-air” platform that could go deep into enemy airspace and conduct kinetic and non-kinetic attacks.
While fifth-generation platforms such as the F-35 and F-22 are low-observable against today’s X-band radars, the concept of stealth will likely be broader for future systems, said retired fighter pilot Gen. Hawk Carlisle, president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association and the former commander of Air Combat Command.
“It has got to try to be stealthier across more of the radar spectrum. It has to be stealthy in the IR spectrum. It has to be stealthy in the electromagnetic spectrum and how much it emits. It has to be stealthy in other ways,” he said. “When we talk about sixth-gen, it’s multispectral stealth across as many sensor capabilities as exist out there.”
Another way to improve survivability is to suppress enemy air-defense systems with electronic warfare tools or shoot down their missiles and fighter jets, analysts have noted.
“Navy leaders intend [the future fighter] FA-XX to be survivable in highly contested environments, which it might achieve through a combination of sensor countermeasures and self-defense weapons rather than aircraft shape and coatings alone,” said a report published last year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled, “Regaining the High Ground at Sea: Transforming the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Air Wing for Great Power Competition.”
BAE’s Director of Future Combat Air Systems Michael Christie — in an interview published in Eurofighter World magazine — said the Tempest will need to have the right defensive technologies to protect itself against a large number of enemy assets. BAE is the prime contractor for the Tempest project.
European missile-maker MBDA envisions platforms armed with interceptors.
Even if aircraft are stealthy, “we think that in the end game you will still have the threat of incoming missiles,” said Jean Dupont, the company’s head of media relations. “The only way to get rid of these very sophisticated threats will be to have … self-defense missiles onboard the aircraft.”
An Air Force Research Laboratory video released last year titled, “Air Force 2030: Call to Action,” included a computer-generated F-X fighter shooting down an enemy aircraft with a laser.
Carlisle said he anticipates lasers being integrated onto U.S. fighters once size, weight, power, thermal management and beam control challenges are solved.
“We’re not there yet. It’s going to take a little bit of time,” he said. But “that capability is not too far in the future.”
Other possibilities for directed energy weapons include high powered microwaves or an electromagnetic pulse-type of capability, he said.
“If you can do something to disrupt the microelectronics in an adversary system, then you potentially can render it combat ineffective,” he explained. “We’ve demonstrated we can do it with a couple of different systems, so I think that’s another … capability that could come forward before too long.”
Another factor to consider is the need for speed. Carlisle noted that historically there has been a tradeoff between speed and stealth because quicker aircraft tend to have higher infrared signatures. However, cooling technologies could potentially enable next-gen systems to fly faster without sacrificing low-observability.
Range and endurance are other key characteristics of any aircraft. Some observers have raised concerns about existing platforms’ combat radius.
“One of the hits on fighters is you spend a lot of time going to the tanker because of range” limitations, Carlisle said.
The CSBA report said the Navy’s FA-XX is expected to emphasize range and speed. Future naval aircraft might need to provide offensive counter-air support from carriers that are located as far as 1,000 to 1,200 nautical miles away from enemy missile launchers, the authors said.
Another CSBA report commissioned by Congress and published earlier this year titled, “An Air Force for an Era of Great Power Competition,” said the service needs a penetrating counter-air platform that has greater range, endurance and payload capacity than contemporary fighters. Such a plane must be capable of conducting electronic warfare attacks to help suppress threats and enable other penetrating aircraft to survive and perform their missions.
A future system or family of systems “has to be able to have the legs to persist in that environment for long as we need it to persist,” Goldfein said.
It must also have the ability to punish U.S. adversaries with its firepower, he noted. The service is pursuing a next-gen air-to-air weapon, as well as highly maneuverable hypersonic strike missiles.
“You can make a missile pretty low-observable,” Carlisle said. “Now you look at a hypersonic missile that’s doing Mach 5, Mach 8, Mach 12, … even if the adversary knows it’s there as it passes through a weapons envelope so quickly, their ability to react and do something is very limited.”
Meanwhile, MBDA is planning to create a new series of smart missiles that could be networked with other systems. The multinational company is part of the Tempest and FCAS teams, and it intends to develop technologies for both systems.
“We want to build synergies between those programs … in the weapon set,” Dupont said.
Nations must also decide if they want their next-generation fighters to be manned, unmanned or optionally manned.
Unmanned systems can operate without the limitations of the human pilot, such as fatigue and being able to handle G forces, Carlisle noted. They also keep airmen out of harm’s way. However, officials still see value in having a human in the loop to make decisions.
“We all know that technically, of course, it’s feasible” for a next-generation fighter to be unmanned, said Florian Taitsch, head of media relations for Airbus Defense and Space.
“But as far as I understand, the European nations … [prefer] having a man sitting there in the cockpit.”
Airbus is one of the prime contractors for FCAS.
The Tempest could be manned or unmanned, according to the United Kingdom’s latest combat air strategy.
The U.S. Navy sees advantages in both options, said Anjanette Knappenberger, deputy director of air warfare in the office of the chief of naval operations.
For certain scenarios and certain mission sets, an autonomous platform might be able to get the job done, she said during a panel at this year’s Navy League Sea-Air-Space Symposium.
“But we’re seeing a lot more ability to leverage some of that … autonomy but still be in the loop with the manned system,” she added. That was one of the focus areas that the service looked at in its next-generation air dominance analysis of alternatives.
Sixth-generation fighters may be accompanied by robotic wingmen when they go into battle.
Taitsch said the future combat air system is expected to include a manned fighter that will function as a mothership for drones called remote carriers.
Christie said manned/unmanned teaming and artificial intelligence will be a key component of next-generation air warfare. “One of the challenges is working out what the man does and what the machine does,” he noted.
The Pentagon is gung-ho on the concept, envisioning a family of systems cooperating to accomplish their mission.
“The Air Force is talking a lot about loyal wingman … where there’s a manned platform and then there’s a group of unmanned capability that is either semi-autonomous, totally autonomous or totally controlled,” Carlisle said.
“You may have a man in the loop that’s maybe back in the rear so he’s less threatened, but he controls things in front of him,” he explained. “You may have that penetrating capability with man in the loop that goes forward … but he has the ability to control the rest of the systems from his place. Or you could have it all forward and unmanned” with a human overseeing the mission from much farther away.
The Air Force Research Lab is already testing a low-cost Valkyrie drone that could be paired with the fighter fleet.
Future fighters might even be able to carry unmanned aerial vehicles that could be deployed from the mothership.
“Our idea is to have something so compact, light [that it would be] completely compatible with the launchers,” said Sebastien Palaprat, an engineer with MBDA. The systems could operate in swarms and be networked with other weapons.
The Pentagon has experimented with this concept. In 2016, a swarm of more than 100 Perdix micro drones were deployed from three F/A-18 Super Hornets at China Lake, California.
Data processing and sharing, enabled by automation and artificial intelligence, will be key to next-generation air dominance, officials and other observers say.
The FCAS will include an “air combat cloud” to enable fighter jets and other military forces to share “all the information available on the battlefield in real time with anybody,” Taitsch said.
That would be a major leap in situational awareness capability, he noted. Anybody who claims that this level of information sharing is already happening has “seen too many films that are coming out of Hollywood,” he added.
Christie said situational awareness will be a key feature of any future force. “The next generation will be all about … information dominance.”
Carlisle expects sensor fusion capability will be radically improved in next-gen systems.
“We have to learn to DANCE,” he said, using an acronym which stands for data, algorithms, networks, cloud and edge computing.
“You need the data. You need the algorithms, which is the AI or machine learning. You need the networks so that you can pass this around. You need the cloud for that data accessibility. And then you need computing at the [tactical] edge,” Carlisle explained. “I think that’s going to be where the sixth-gen is going to take us.”
Some Air Force and Navy officials are now shying away from using the term sixth-generation fighter, and have adopted the phrase next-generation air dominance, or NGAD, to describe their future systems, which will be supported by space, cyber and other capabilities.
Goldfein said the Air Force could develop multiple types of sixth-gen aircraft.
“I don’t know right now whether it’s a single platform [or] it’s a number of platforms,” he said. “I want to keep that wide open so we can really drive towards game changing technology as we go forward.”
Next-gen aircraft might not look like today’s fighters, Carlisle said.
“In people’s mind when they think fighter, they think F-22, F-35, F-18, F-15, F-16 — but it may not be a fighter in the traditional sense,” he said. “It may have different attributes. It may be a bigger airplane with a bigger internal storage and bigger payload.”
The mockups unveiled by European powers, on the other hand, have a more traditional look. The Tempest “will probably still be an iconic fighter aircraft but with lots of related systems,” Chrisitie said.
Countries are moving forward with their sixth-gen plans. By the end of next year, the Tempest project is expected to shift from a concept phase to an assessment phase. The U.K. Defence Ministry aims to have the aircraft operational by 2035.
Later this year, the FCAS program will move from a joint concept phase to a demonstrator phase. The new fighter is expected to be ready for action by 2040.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy are planning to field new platforms in the 2030s. Analyses of alternatives have already been conducted, and billions of dollars for next-generation air dominance capabilities are included in the future years defense program.
The Air Force is doing risk reduction and prototyping, which is expected to run through fiscal year 2024, according to budget documents. The Navy is planning to initiate a concept refinement phase in fiscal year 2020, according to Capt. Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James “Hondo” Geurts.
The race is on to develop the most cutting edge systems.
“We have a very strong industrial base that’s bringing lots of new ideas to us,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters. “We might have a very good competition there.”
— Additional reporting by Connie Lee