6th-Generation Fighters: Closer Than You Think!

India’s military-industrial establishment needs to get cracking on sixth-generation technologies like optional manning, swarm drones, DEW, hypersonic weapons and ensure that they are effectively built into the AMCA

Issue: Aero India 2021 SpecialBy Joseph NoronhaPhoto(s): By ADA
There are plans to incorporate some sixth-generation technologies in the under development fifth-generation Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft (AMCA)

In September 2020 came the stunning news that the United States (US) has secretly designed, built and test flown a prototype sixth-generation fighter jet under the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme. This was an event not expected for years. In fact, the last time an experimental fighter took off in the US was during the shootout for a fifth-generation fighter 20 years ago. That contract eventually was won by Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II. It took over ten years to complete and has become the most expensive American weapons programme ever. Other nations are still struggling to make their own fifth-generation fighters. But this unnamed sixth-generation jet has taken just a couple of years from the time serious work on the project commenced to actual flight.

There are a handful of other sixth-generation programmes in various stages of development around the world. While the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) is expected to launch the first flight of its New Generation Fighter (NGF) in 2026 the British-led Tempest is expected to be operational by 2035. Both China and Russia are also believed to be working on their own sixth-generation combat planes. What is a sixth-generation fighter? At present the definition is delightfully vague. According to Wikipedia, “A sixth-generation fighter is a conceptualised class of jet fighter aircraft design more advanced than the fifth-generation jet fighters that are currently in service and development.”

FIFTH-GENERATION FUNDAMENTALS

So what are the characteristics of fifth-generation jet fighters? The key ones are stealth, sensors, and supercruise. Stealth technology helps the aircraft to avoid detection by reducing or reflecting radar emissions, infrared, visible light, radio frequency spectrum and audio. The sensor suite includes advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and electro-optical sensors to detect adversaries at long distance. It also includes sensor fusion – merging data from a variety of sensors and presenting it to the pilot as useful information. Supercruise means the fighter can fly supersonic without afterburner, thus significantly conserving fuel and increasing its combat endurance.

The new US jet is an early result of a design, development and production philosophy called digital modelling that greatly expedites the entire process

GET SET FOR THE SIXTH-GENERATION

Analysts believe that sixth-generation jet fighters are likely to have certain distinct characteristics as under:

  • Stealth would continue to dominate. The aircraft may even have an advanced skin to manage heat distribution and to foil detection by radar, infrared and thermal systems thus making it low-observable in multiple spectrums.
  • The design would be modular facilitating rapid swapping of components as well as future upgrades.
  • It would have extensive Artificial Intelligence (AI) and be optionally manned.
  • It would be able to control drone swarms in both defensive and offensive operations.
  • It would have impressive electrical power generation capability to facilitate the operation of laser and hypersonic weaponry.
  • It would be powered by an advanced engine – probably a variable cycle engine that can configure itself to act like a turbojet at supersonic speeds, while performing like a high-bypass turbofan for efficient cruise at lower speeds. This would be achieved through an adaptive fan that would allow the engine to use a third stream of air to increase or decrease the bypass ratio to the optimum for a particular altitude and speed.

UNITED STATES IN THE LEAD

It is a no brainer that the US which produced the world’s first two fifth-generation fighters, the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, should be first off the blocks with a sixth-generation combat jet. However, nothing is known about the prototype or its first flight except that it has happened. The plane’s appearance and size, which company developed and whether it was manned or not – are details that remain undisclosed. It is safe to assume that the platform emerged from one of the three leading aerospace majors – Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin or Boeing. Both Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have already worked on NGAD fighter projects and earlier images reveal a strong stealth emphasis with virtually no vertical structures. Lockheed’s older pictures show a perfectly flat, blended wing-body with no protruding fins.

The new US jet is an early result of a design, development and production philosophy called digital modelling that greatly expedites the entire process. Digital modelling, in a nutshell, means virtually identifying as many potential flaws and limitations as possible prior to choosing the most suitable model and only then building an optimised system. This could eliminate years of repeated prototyping and testing and aims to manufacture a new class of jet fighter in less than five years. If the model succeeds, the US could rapidly build new aircraft using the best technology available and factoring in near-term threats rather than building for unknown threats a couple of decades into the future that might or might not materialise.

The so-called Digital Century Series envisages several small batches of distinct fighter jets with each batch incrementally better than the preceding one. This could tie up adversaries such as Russia and China in vain attempts to keep pace with US technological advances and perhaps even throw them off balance. The US is already way ahead of other nations when it comes to many advanced technologies that go into sixth-generation fighters – like variable cycle engines, laser weaponry, manned-unmanned teaming and AI. In December 2020, the US Air Force tested an AI agent named ARTUµ that controlled and directed radar on a manned reconnaissance plane while carrying out tactical navigation.

CHINA AND RUSSIA

China which became only the second nation to operationalise a fifth-generation fighter – the Chengdu J-20 – is reportedly working on a new stealth jet with sixth-generation capabilities such as commanding drone swarms, AI, as well as hypersonic and laser weaponry. It is expected to be operational by 2035.

Russia’s fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 was declared operational only in December 2020, becoming the fourth aircraft type in the world to attain this status. Its potentially sixth-generation stealth interceptor, the Mikoyan MiG-41, is expected to take to the skies by 2025.

LEAPFROGGING TO THE SIXTH GENERATION

Europe completely missed out on building fifth-generation fighters, but is trying to make up for lost time by determinedly pursuing the sixth-generation platform. France and Germany launched the FCAS programme in July 2017 and Spain joined in 2019. Its main components will be the NGF, a sixth-generation fighter, as well as “remote carrier vehicles” (swarming drones) and cruise missiles. The NGF’s key capabilities will include improved stealth, enhanced situational awareness through an advanced avionics and sensor suite and manned-unmanned teaming. It will have greater manoeuvrability, speed and range, thanks to its powerful engines and advanced flight control system.

The Tempest is another tri-national sixth-generation fighter programme, this time featuring the UK, Italy and Sweden. Launched in 2018, the Tempest combat jet is planned to enter service in 2035. Apart from other features, it is likely to include optional manning, directed-energy weapons (DEW) and hypersonic weapons.

India, whose efforts to obtain a fifth-generation fighter have also not borne fruit, now plans to incorporate some sixth-generation technologies in the under development fifth-generation Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Although the target for the AMCA is to enter production in 2030, this looks rather ambitious and seems likely to slip. India’s military-industrial establishment needs to get cracking on sixth-generation technologies such as optional manning, swarm drones, DEW, hypersonic weapons and ensure that they are effectively built into the AMCA so that India is not left behind in this high-stakes race for military aviation superiority.