A sixth-generation fighter is a conceptualized class of jet fighter aircraft design more advanced than the fifth-generation jet fighters that are currently in service and development. Several countries have announced the development of a sixth-generation aircraft program, including the United States, China, United Kingdom, India, Russia, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and France.
The United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Navy (USN) are anticipated to field their first sixth-generation fighters in 2025–2030. The USAF is pursuing development and acquisition of a sixth-generation fighter through the Penetrating Counter Air to replace its existing air superiority fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and complement existing platforms in service such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The USN is pursuing a similar program called the Next Generation Air Dominance, likewise intended to complement the smaller Lockheed F-35 and replace its existing aircraft such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
However, with very little reporting on progress on sixth-generation fighters, slippage being reported in production of variants of the fifth-generation fighters like the F-35, and timelines for aircraft in development like the F/A-XX Program being delayed, 2030–2035 is a more realistic timeframe for fielding sixth-generation fighters.
While still at an early stage of development, several distinct characteristics common to many sixth-generation fighter concepts have evolved.
The fifth-generation abilities for air-to-air capability, battlefield survivability in the anticipated anti-access/area-denial environment and ground support/attack will need to be enhanced and adapted to the future threat environment. An initial focus on air superiority roles has moved away from close-in dogfighting, which is becoming less common, and instead broadened to embrace ground support, cyber warfare and even space warfare capabilities, with beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile capability remaining important. The flexibility to undertake manned and unmanned missions is also sought, along with the ability to integrate with more numerous fleets of satellite drones and ground sensors in a high-traffic networked environment to deliver full "data-to-decision" (D2D) capability.
Typical design characteristics anticipated to deliver these roles include:
- Advanced digital capabilities including high-capacity networking, AI, data fusion, cyber warfare, D2D and battlefield command, control and communications (C3) capabilities.
- Optionally manned, with the same airframe capable of conducting piloted, remote controlled or onboard-AI controlled missions.
- Enhanced human-systems integration, with virtual cockpits presented via helmet-mounted displays which allow the pilot 360-degree vision with AI-enhanced battlefield awareness, and replacing conventional instrument panels.
- Advanced stealth airframes and avionics.
- Advanced variable-cycle engines able to cruise economically but still deliver high thrust when required.
- Increased-range stand off and BVR weapons.
- Potential use of directed-energy weapons such as a laser CIWS.
The feasibility of some of these characteristics remains uncertain. Development time and cost are likely to prove major factors in laying out practical roadmaps. Specific requirements are anticipated by some observers to crystallise around 2025.
The Chinese military has reportedly begun work on a 6th generation fighter. In 2019, progress was announced in the design and development of several key components, including a next-generation engine. China plans to field it in the 2025–2030 time frame.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) formally announced plans to develop sixth generation combat systems during the Air Force Day on 8 October 2020. The IAF say they have a clear roadmap for sixth generation fighters and that planning is ongoing. The system is expected to have "directed energy weapons, smart wingman concept, optionally manned combat platforms, swarm drones, hypersonic weapons" and other equipment.
Following renewed threats of invasion by China, the Taiwanese government re-initiated development of next generation jet fighters. Nearly around 30 years after the first flight of the F-CK-1 Fighter, the T-5 Trainer is seen as the first step in developing a 6th-gen fighter to maintain parity in cross strait air superiority.
In 2010, the Japanese government revealed a concept sixth-generation jet fighter, the i3 FIGHTER. i3 is short for informed, intelligent and instantaneous. On March 22, 2016, Japan conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin testbed aircraft for this project. On April 1, 2020, the F-X program was announced.
France, Germany, and Spain
France has abandoned any attempt to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter and has moved resources directly to development of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
In July 2017 France and Germany announced they would jointly develop a new combat European New Generation Aircraft to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, Panavia Tornado and Dassault Rafale fighters.
The German Air Force, in partnership with Airbus Defence and Space, are in the initial stages of developing a new sixth-generation fighter. Sharing the same name as an earlier British UCAV project, the German Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is a separate program, expected to be operational in the 2030–40s. Little is currently known about the project, other than it will likely be a twin-seat "system of systems" aircraft acting as a combat platform as well as controlling UCAVs.
Spain announced in December 2018 that it will join the project.
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 Su-57.
United Kingdom, Sweden, and Italy
In July 2014, Jane's Information Group reported that a House of Commons Defence Select Committee had published a report about the UK's future "post-2030 combat aviation force structure". The report highlighted a possibility of the UK committing to a next generation fighter program to potentially replace the Eurofighter Typhoon post-2030; the Eurofighter Typhoon has since had its intended service life extended to around 2040.
In July 2018, British Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Wiliamson unveiled the UK's Combat Air Strategy and announced the development of a sixth-generation fighter concept named the Tempest for the Royal Air Force at Farnborough Airshow 2018.
The US Navy launched its sixth-generation F/A-XX programme in 2008 and the USAF sought initial responses for a Next Generation Tactical Aircraft (Next Gen TACAIR), which would become the F-X programme, in 2010.
In April 2013, DARPA initiated a study to try and bring together existing USAF and USN concepts. Next-generation fighter efforts would initially be led by DARPA under the "Air Dominance Initiative" to develop prototype X-planes. The US Navy and Air Force would each have variants focused on their mission requirements. However, also in 2013, the RAND Corporation recommended that the U.S. military services avoid joint programs for the development of the design of a sixth-generation fighter. They found that in previous joint programs, different service-specific requirements for complex programs had led to design compromises which raised costs far more than normal single-service programs.
In 2014 a broader approach to offensive technologies was proposed, with USAF aircraft anticipated to operate alongside ground-based and non-kinetic anti-aircraft solutions, and with a greater weapon load than current fighters. In 2016 the USAF consolidated this change of course for its Air Superiority 2030 plan, to pursue "a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms" rather than focusing on the sixth generation fighter. The Air Force and Navy requirements had already been merged the year before and were now formally integrated, with the joint focus to be on AI systems and a common airframe.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have all announced sixth-generation aircraft development projects. On September 14, 2020, the USAF announced that a prototype aircraft component of the Next-Generation Air Dominance program had flown for the first time. The details remained classified.
Concepts and technologies
There are significant differences between Navy and Air Force visions for their respective next-generation jet concepts, but both agree on some fundamental characteristics. These include artificial intelligence as a decision aid to the pilot, similar in concept to current sensor fusion. They will also have Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), and communications that allow big data movement between both service's aircraft.
The USAF regard stealth as extremely important for the F-X, while the US Navy emphasise the F/A-XX should not be so focused on survivability as to sacrifice speed and payload. Unlike the previous F-22 and F-35 development programs that depended on new technologies that drove up cost and delayed introduction, the Air Force is intending to follow a methodical path of risk reduction to include as much prototyping, technology demonstration, and systems engineering work as possible before creation of an aircraft actually starts. Sixth-generation strike capability is seen as not just an aircraft, but a system of systems including communications, space capabilities, standoff, and stand-in options.
In March 2015, the Navy revealed they were working with the Air Force to potentially release joint analysis of alternatives (AoA) in 2016 for their next-generation fighters; they are allowed to take a joint AoA, then define a service solution that would be good for each service. The Navy is focusing on replacing the capabilities of the fighter with a wide range of options for the Super Hornet, as well as the EA-18G Growler. The AoA will run parallel to several other design and technology efforts including engine technology, airframe molds, broadband and IR stealth, and new ways to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. Part of the Navy's calculus will be based on how the F-35C performs as a critical forward sensor node for the carrier air wing. How the fifth-generation F-35C integrates with the rest of the air wing to give greater capabilities than what the platform itself can do may lend itself to the sixth-generation F/A-XX. The Navy aircraft is to have greatly increased speed and range compared to the Super Hornet.
In April 2015, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) released a report concluding that the next-generation U.S. Air Force fighter should be larger and more resembling a bomber than a small, maneuverable traditional fighter. It analyzed over 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965 and 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 (Long-Range Engagement Weapon). 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.
In November 2016 the USAF Scientific Advisory Board announced studies for a Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) platform that would combine long range, supersonic speed, stealth and maneuverability and be fielded by 2030. PCA would have substantially longer range to fly long distances over the Pacific, especially in a situation where airbases in the vicinity of China are not available or if aerial tankers are destroyed. It would also escort bombers deep into Russia or China, where the anticipated threat includes advanced networked air defense radars. It would include stealth against low or very high frequency radars (like those of the S-400 missile system), which requires an airframe with no vertical stabilizers. Another requirement is significantly larger payload than current air superiority aircraft like the F-22. Adaptive cycle engine technology is an option under consideration for the PCA, given the fact that the alternative would be a very large aircraft.
While current engines operate best at a single point in the flight envelope, sixth-generation engines are expected to have a variable cycle to give optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude, giving greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency. The engine would 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 will likely be available to aircraft with this engine type. The technology is being developed by the Air Force under the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) and by the Navy under its Variable Cycle Advanced Technology (VCAT) programme. 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. 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.
The Air Force is interested in lasers both for low-power illumination and as higher-powered weapons. In November 2013, the Air Force Research Laboratory released a request for information (RFI) for submissions with detailed descriptions in a militarily useful configuration, potential problems and solutions, and cost estimates.
Proposed sixth-generation fighters
- Dassault/Airbus FCAS
- F-X (Japan)
- F-X (USA) / Penetrating Counter Air/ Next Generation Air Dominance
- HAL AMCA Mk2
- J-XX program (China)
- Mikoyan MiG-41
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