Sixth-generation jet fighter
A sixth-generation jet fighter is a conceptualized class of fighter aircraft design more advanced than the fifth-generation jet fighters which are currently in service in the United States and in development in other countries. The United States Air Force and United States Navy are anticipated to field their first sixth-generation fighters in the 2025–30 time frame. The USAF is pursuing development and acquisition of a sixth-generation fighter through the F-X program to replace the F-22 Raptor, and the U.S. Navy is pursuing a similar program called the Next Generation Air Dominance to replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
On October 10, 2012, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendal justified the need to start the program.
The Pentagon 2015 budget request has studies to lead to an acquisition program in fiscal year 2018.
Dubbed the "Next Generation Tactical Aircraft"/"Next Gen TACAIR", the USAF seeks a fighter with "enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration and weapons effects," a November 4, 2010 presolicitation notice states. “The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defense systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030–50 timeframe.”
The sixth-generation fighters are expected to use advanced engines such as Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology to allow longer ranges and higher performance. Risk reduction began in 2012 so that engine development can start around 2020. An engine is to be ready when fighters are introduced by the Navy in 2028 and the Air Force in 2032.
USAF General Mike Hostage has said that they have yet to decide on which features will define the sixth-generation fighters.
In November 2013, the Air Force Research Laboratory 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. The laser and systems controls are to work at altitudes from sea level to 65,000 ft at speeds from Mach 0.6 to Mach 2.5. Laser submissions are to be at technology readiness level 4 (basic components work in a lab) by October 2014, and the Air Force wants a system to be at technology readiness level 5 (system components work in a simulated environment) or higher by 2022. The RFI requests submissions with detailed descriptions in a militarily useful configuration, potential problems and solutions, and cost estimates.
The RAND Corporation has recommended that the U.S. military services avoid joint programs for the development the design of a sixth-generation fighter. Studies by RAND have found that in previous joint programs, different service-specific requirements for complex programs have led to design compromises that raise costs far more than normal single-service programs. In a comparison between four recent joint service programs (F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, T-6A Texan II Joint Primary Aircraft Training System, E-8 JSTARS, V-22 Osprey) and four recent single-service programs (C-17 Globemaster III, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F-22 Raptor, T-45 Goshawk), costs for joint programs rose 65 percent nine years after a Milestone B decision to move into engineering and manufacturing development compared to 24 percent for independent programs during the same timespan.
Engine development for sixth generation fighters is already underway to be more efficient in making jets faster and giving them a longer range. While current engines operate best at a single point in the flight envelope, newer engines could vary their bypass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. That would give an aircraft a much greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency. A variable-cycle engine could configure itself to act like a turbojet at supersonic speeds, while performing like a high-bypass turbofan for efficient cruising at slower speeds; the ability to supercruise may not be a critical requirement, but it will likely be able to with the engine type. One critical component is the adaptive fan to allow the engine to vary its bypass ratio depending on altitude and speed with a third stream of air to increase or decrease the bypass ratio. A low-bypass configuration would be used for take offs and supersonic flight, and a high-bypass configuration would have high propulsive efficiency for cruising. The U.S. Navy and Air Force have different sixth generation fighter development programs, but both services are working together on engine development. The Air Force is aiming for a Milestone A decision by 2018, with a production version to be ready possibly by 2021. Companies involved with next-generation engine development include General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.
On 30 July 2014, General Mike Hostage spoke about the evolving nature of proposed sixth-generation fighter requirements at an event hosted by the Air Force Association (AFA). Since Air Combat Command released a request for information (RFI) in 2009 for industry feedback on sixth-generation air dominance technologies, teams thinking of requirements have been told not to think in terms of a "platform" like a single-seat fighter with a certain number of engines. Hostage remarked that if next-generation air dominance capabilities came from pressing "a single button on a keyboard that makes all our adversaries fall to the ground" it would be acceptable. Concepts from the Air Force and industry have so far revolved around tailless supersonic air vehicles. One of the key limitations in relying on a single platform is they have a limited weapons load, so the original RFI sought ground-based and non-kinetic solutions, with whatever sixth-generation technology being required to have a larger magazine than current fighter solutions.
There are significant differences between Navy and Air Force visions for their respective next-generation jet concepts, but both agree on some fundamental characteristic aspects they will share. American sixth-generation fighters are to feature artificial intelligence as a decision aid to the pilot, similar in concept to how advanced sensor fusion is used by the F-22 and F-35. They will also have Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), and communications that allow big data movement between both service's aircraft.
In September 2011, Boeing unveiled a sixth-generation fighter concept for the U.S. Navy and Air Force. It is planned to have supercruise and fly faster and further than the F-35 Lightning II. Boeing is self-funding the project until an official fighter program starts to have a design ready.
Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division has revealed a conceptual next-generation fighter design that offers the first hints of an ambitious, long-term technology strategy for the new class of tactical aircraft that will emerge after 2030. The concept was published in a 2012 calendar, which was distributed to journalists. Lockheed Martin has called for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures.
In 2010, Japanese Ministry of Defence exposed the concept of sixth-generation national product jet fighter.
On 26 August 2013, Russia revealed it would proceed with development of a sixth-generation jet fighter. They say the aircraft will most likely be pilotless. However, they would not skip completing development of fifth-generation fighter projects, like the Sukhoi T-50.
China is believed to be developing sixth-generation fighters, with designs being created by companies including Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation. Russia believes that with the introduction of an American sixth-generation fighter planned between 2030 and 2040, it is unlikely that China could develop their own before that timeframe given the lack of sufficient resources.
France has abandoned any attempt to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter and have moved resources directly to development of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
On the 29th of July 2014, "IHS Janes" reported that a House of Commons Defence Select Committee had published a report in late July 2014 about the UK's future, "post-2030 combat aviation force structure". Within this report a possibility of the UK committing to a next generation fighter program to potentially replace the Euro-fighter Typhoon post-2030 was highlighted.
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- Russia Developing Unmanned Next-Generation Fighter - En.Ria.ru, 26 August 2013
- 6th-gen Chinese fighter before 2030 highly unlikely says Russian analyst - Wantchinatimes.com, 17 December 2012