The world of aerospace is full of buzzwords and phrases and one that's been getting a lot of attention in military aircraft circles is "sixth-generation fighters." Rather than an F-35 or a Typhoon with new trim and chrome hubcaps, these emerging combat aircraft are set to represent a real sea change in tactics and, perhaps, strategy in the middle of the 21st century. But what exactly is the sixth gen? Let's take a look.

War in 2044

The year is 2044 and the place is the frontier between the Blue and the Green nations. The armed forces of the Greens is a little bit behind the times but, though they rely on a mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, they have recently purchased a state-of-the-art surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile (SAM) system backed up by the latest in radar installations.

So far, the war that had been declared between the two countries had been a month-long standoff, but one day at about dawn an airborne early warning radar aircraft detected what it first thought was a small bird, except this was a bird that was flying at twice the speed of sound.

Initially thought to be a cruise missile, the Green defense forces quickly determined that it was a single stealth fighter plane of the Blue Air Force on a course that would soon put it in Green airspace. The alarm was sounded, the missile batteries put online, and a squadron of interceptors scrambled to engage the intruder.

At this point, the Blue fighter was so far away that it seemed to pose no immediate threat, but then something odd happened. The Blue jet launched four missiles that sprang away at hypersonic speed. The Green commander thought the pilot must have been mad because, while the Green interceptors were within extreme range of the Blue missiles, there was no chance of locking on target, much less hitting it.

But the four missiles came on, heading straight for the interceptors, destroying three of them. The Green ground-based anti-aircraft missile batteries returned fire, but the SAMs simply exploded in midair almost instantly – even when fired in a massive salvo.

Then utter confusion reigned as swarms and swarms of Blue drones suddenly appeared out of nowhere, acting as shields for a half dozen Blue fighters – four of which had no one in their cockpits – that closed with their targets as if by magic. The drones quickly overwhelmed the Green air defenses, allowing the Blue fighters to destroy them easily. Meanwhile, the original Blue intruder stood off and seemed to be coordinating the attack as it guided in a wave of arsenal craft and paratrooper transports.

The Green lines were breached in less than an hour.

How did it happen?

This scenario is still science fiction, but only just. It's a very brief glance at what war could look like 25 years from now when the sixth-generation fighter jet becomes fully operational.

So what happened in our little story? The difficulty in seeing the intruder jet is easy, that's just good old-fashioned stealth technology. That fantastic long-range missile shot when the fighter couldn't possibly get a lock was thanks to a satellite taking over guiding them to target by switching over control from the fighter and coordinating with a reconnaissance drone.

The exploding SAMs was achieved with lasers from the intruder and other aircraft. What other aircraft? The ones keeping a very low profile by leaving their radar turned off while the visible fighter relayed huge amounts of sensor data in real time. Thanks to an onboard artificial intelligence system, the fighter also coordinated the mass drone attack as well as the flight of manned and unmanned fighters coming in for the final kill by handling data from a dozen different sources at once.

And that's just a very simple example of what this emerging sixth generation of fighter air power can do – if things work out the way the engineers expect.

What is sixth generation?

Not surprisingly, sixth-generation fighters are the next technological level after today's fifth-generation fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, which is a stealthy, high-performance, multi-role aircraft that is most notable for its ability to use high-speed data links to directly share information from sensors and avionics.

Such fifth-generation fighters are only now coming into service and others are being developed in Russia, China, and Japan, but they are already obsolete. Even while the F-35 was still in the testing phase, the US Pentagon was looking at a replacement, and countries like France and Germany gave up their own efforts at building a fifth-generation fighter in favor of skipping straight to making a sixth.

Today, there are nine countries working on a sixth-generation fighter either individually or jointly.

Leading the pack is the United States with the US Navy's F/A-XX that is aimed at replacing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and complement the F-35C, the UCLASS unmanned aircraft, and the US Air Force's F-X Next Generation Tactical Aircraft. Meanwhile, France, Germany, and Spain have teamed up to build the New Generation Fighter (NGF) to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, Panavia Tornado, and Dassault Rafale fighters.

And in a surprise announcement in July 2018, Britain, which had been shut out of the NGF program, said that it was pursuing its own sixth-generation fighter called the Tempest, which Sweden recently agreed to partner on. And rounding up the field is Japan's Mitsubishi F-3, Russia's Sukhoi Okhotnik and Mikoyan MiG-41, and Taiwan's Advanced Defense Fighter.

Security, concepts, and speculation

Exactly what these super advanced fighter planes are going to be like is a very good question, and one that is very hard to answer. The design and capabilities of the next generation of fighters is as touchy a subject as the very existence of stealth aircraft was during the Cold War. This makes many of those in the know a bit reluctant to provide details.

For example, in an interview with Investor Business Daily Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, William Roper said, "If I said, 'Here's what our sixth-gen fighter would be,' it would be a great article for you, and I would read it from jail, and I'm sure it would be very entertaining."

This means that those of us who don't rate top secret clearance are left in the same spot as aviation enthusiasts in the 1980s who hung around Area 51 with binoculars and were never sure if what they saw was a UFO or a prototype stealth aircraft. Worse, much of the technology is still evolving, so what we're left to work with are technology predictions compared against sets of official requirements and extrapolations of current aircraft.

But it's a starting point.

Tour of a sixth-generation fighter

What follows isn't a description of a specific sixth-generation fighter, but more of a composite image that leans on the general side. Bear in mind that in real life these aircraft are being built by different countries pursuing different paths for armed forces that have different needs and little liking for one-size-fits-all joint programs that have proven less than completely successful. Also, the final fighters may come in many variants. Some may be land based, others carrier based, some may be VSTOL, some may be multi-role, while others may be specialists like interceptors. So what follows is seen through a crystal ball that's a bit low resolution.

From the concepts that have been released by various aerospace companies, sixth-generation fighters will share a number of common features. The basic jet will very likely be a large, flattish delta wing aircraft that's a single-seater – even for training. It will be faster than current fighters, have a longer range, but will be less maneuverable than a fifth-generation because dogfights are expected to be rare with most attacks coming from over the horizon.

Of course, such predictions have a notorious track record for being wrong – much in the way that every generation of fighter designers since 1945 has taken out the machine gun believing it to be pointless, only to put it back in a few years later.

The basics

One thing the sixth-generation fighter is certain to have is stealth technology. Taking a page from what's been learned from previous generations, it will include features like reducing radar profiles by removing vertical stabilizers and canards, coating the hull with radar-absorbent materials, and infrared obscuring technology to make the craft even out its temperature profile.

However, advances in sensors have begun to counter much of today's stealth technology, so sixth-generation fighters may make trade offs, such as opting for less stealth in favor of a greater emphasis on speed and payload that would allow them to outrun threats or overwhelm them with counter-weapons.

Greater flight range is another key feature as technology means that ground bases and aircraft carriers need to be farther from the action. To achieve this, sixth-generation fighters will have one or two engines with a new, advanced, super-cruise design that allows them reconfigure themselves in mid-flight for the best performance at both high and low speeds, In addition, the engines will be capable of generating large amounts of electrical power for energy weapons.

Virtual cockpit

Slipping into the cockpit of a sixth-gen fighter might be a bit disconcerting for today's pilots because it may have few, if any, physical instruments or controls. Instead, it may be a virtual cockpit made up of blank plastic surfaces that suddenly change when the pilot puts on his helmet. Then the surfaces and even the pilot's flight suit will be covered with displays and controls that can change instantly to suit a particular situation. Even the controls may give way to operating the plane by a voice command, gesture, or a glance.

"The really clever bit will be that based on where the pilot is looking, we can infer the pilot's goal and use intelligent systems to support task performance and reduce the pilot's workload," says Jean Page, Lead Technologist for BAE which is developing a wearable cockpit. "We want to do it in a way that doesn't always ask for permission, because that would get very annoying very quickly but equally, it is essential that it is always evident to the pilot what task the intelligent system is performing."

Sensors

This virtual cockpit and the pilot's helmet will be tied into an array of cameras and sensors that may be an integral part of the aircraft's skin. This can make the plane effectively invisible from the pilot's point of view. Look anywhere with the helmet on and the fuselage becomes transparent, so no blind spots. These multi-spectral and radio-frequency sensors will allow the fighter to connect with other planes, drones, ships, bases, and satellites – not just to relay simple messages, but a direct, real-time data link as if the aircraft was directly wired into everything else.

Armaments

But a fighter jet is only as good as its punch and the sixth-generation will put a major emphasis on weapons like the British Meteor and Chinese PL-15 missiles that are very accurate at long range. This is a very important step forward because for many years we've had missiles that can fly very fast and very far, but that only have a chance of actually hitting anything at short range.

Not only will missiles be improved along with the plane, but the inter-connectivity means that control of the weapon can be handed over to other platforms that are in a better position to guide it to target in a deadly relay race.

Also the sixth-generation fighter will carry more weapons in its fuselage and have more on call from other air, ground, and sea platforms, so an encounter with an enemy can be answered with overwhelming firepower that could include both supersonic and hypersonic missiles.

Added to this will be laser and other directed energy weapons, such as microwave beams. These will be increasingly deadly and have what is essentially a bottomless supply of ammunition costing a dollar a round as they destroy aircraft and missiles, blind sensors, or temporarily dazzle enemy pilots.

Finally, there are the cyberweapons. The sixth-generation fighter will be so heavily reliant on computers that it will need to be extremely resilient, even on the ground, against hacking. It will also be designed to give as good as it gets by launching its own cyber attacks for both defensive and offensive purposes.

Drones

Drones are one area where the sixth-generation fighter might come into its own. By 2044 these will likely make up a major part of most major air forces and the new fighter will be designed to operate closely with them. These will range from tiny recon quadcopters to unmanned bombers and arsenal aircraft armed with additional swarms of drones and missiles. The fighter itself will likely be armed with its own squadrons of drones that it can deploy, and the fighter's wingman may even be a wingbot.

Artificial intelligence

All of this might seem too much for a single pilot to handle, but a key part of the sixth generation will be artificial intelligence. Since this is an entire field that is still developing rapidly, specifics can be a bit slippery, but at the very least an AI will replace the rear-seat navigator or weapons officer. Essentially, the pilot becomes a force commander making executive decisions, while the AI takes care of the routine tasks and sorts out which information to give to the pilot as needed.

The AI might even replace the pilot for some missions, which would be very useful for especially dangerous tasks, such as initial penetration of air defenses. By 2044, man-optional seems the most likely standard, since pilots have shown a consistent dislike for fully unmanned aircraft. This means some sixth-gen fighters will have an empty cockpit or it will be a module that can be replaced with a specialist mission module with a blank aerodynamic blister where the canopy should be.

What all this implies is that with or without a pilot, the fighter will constantly receive and process data from multiple sources on land, sea, air, and space in a manner streets ahead of the F-35's onboard computers. Its high-speed direct satellite connections will provide near real-time images and allow the AI to call up missiles or other aircraft as easily as if the pilot was controlling them directly, or it can act as a sensor platform that could make today's aerial command centers obsolete.

Evolution

One interesting thing is that the aerospace experts expect the sixth generation to develop much faster than the fifth and might even be cheaper. According to Roper, this will be due to the application of digital engineering, which is already being applied in the US to the A-10 Warthog and the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program. Combined with 3D printing, open architecture, and a modular design, this will allow the new aircraft to go from blueprint to prototype much faster.

Another thing that could speed things up would be to adopt the same rapid deployment strategy that was used for the US Navy Polaris missile project and the US Air Force Century Series fighters. These involved moving quickly from design to construction in small batches to accommodate maturing technologies rather than committing to large numbers of the final product, which led to submarine launch missiles that went from short range, single warhead systems to globe-spanning ones with multiple warheads in under 10 years, as well as the rolling out of the F-100, F-101, F-102, F-103, F-104 and F-105 fighters in quick succession.

But however they evolve, the sixth-generation fighters are still years away. The first will take to the skies sometime in the middle of the next decade and enter service sometime between 2030 and 2035. What exactly these aircraft will look like and be capable of remains to be seen – they may be less dramatic than as we've outlined here or they may be something even far more surprising. But one thing is certain. They won't be your granddad's fighter jet.

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