While next to nothing is known publicly about the now airborne Air Force sixth-generation aircraft, it would by no means be considered a stretch to expect that it is being built to be faster and far more maneuverable than any stealth fighter in existence. Does it have superior speed, Super Cruise-like propulsion technology and dogfighting prowess when compared to the F-22 stealth fighter jet? Does it bring new generations of computing speed and artificial intelligence (AI)-informed analysis to air combat?
There are well-known technical parameters to achieve speed and dogfighting capabilities, including improved thrust-to-weight ratios, high-speed vectoring, engine propulsion technologies and lightweight composite airframes. Yet there is another way to optimize maneuverability and speed potential through streamlined “multi-function hardware,” a concept now being explored in depth by Raytheon.
Developers describe a “multi-function hardware” type of approach as a way to integrate a variety of otherwise disparate functions into a single operational system. The idea to reduce a warplane’s size, weight and power consumption while, perhaps most significantly, exponentially improve information processing.
For instance, Jason “Tex” Clark, Director for Advanced Mission Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, promoted this concept during a Raytheon event. “I really believe we’re moving into an era that incorporates the idea of multifunction hardware. And what do I mean by that? Nowadays, aircraft, [you] have a radar, [you] have a radio or constantly, [you] have a need on the system. I believe as we move into this next generation of tactical platforms, we’ll be moving into the world of multifunction RF [radio frequencies] ...so this idea of multifunction technology and software defined technologies will support evolving mission needs,” said Clark.
Having more operational functions performed by a single system not only reduces the hardware footprint but can also massively expedite the processing of information. Raytheon is now working on a new generation of onboard computer processing intended to, as company engineers put it, essentially turn planes into “flying data centers.”
“Onboard computer clusters composed of high-performance ruggedized processors, will effectively put a data center in the sky. These systems will leverage artificial intelligence turning data into information in real time. The end result of all this will be faster decision making,” Tomek Rys, Director for Communications & Airspace Management Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said at a special Raytheon sixth-generation fighter focused webinar.
Integrating, organizing and analyzing data through new applications of computer processing technology is now being worked on by Raytheon through internal research and development. These advances can form the basis of a wide range of now-in-development next-generation stealth technologies, including new radar-evading configurations, coating materials and advanced thermal-signature reduction.
Raytheon Intelligence & Space is one of a group of industry developers which partners with the military services to explore the realm of the possible when it comes to integrating new capabilities into sixth-generation platforms.
“We provide processors for fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft, and therefore we are uniquely positioned to understand the needs for sixth generation aircraft,” Rys said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.