The Air Force’s already airborne sixth-generation aircraft may reshape air combat when it comes to dogfighting, targeting, speed and maneuverability, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled computing and sensor integration.
There is widespread consensus that applications of AI appear to provide the framework for the most defining expected technological progress in such a warplane. In fact, a 2017 paper from a sixteen-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conglomerate of analysts, called the Joint Air Power Competence Center, raises questions about when and how AI may outpace the human ability to keep up. The essay, titled “Air Warfare Communication in a Networked Environment,” quotes former U.S. Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper from his previous role directing the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, saying, “AI is progressing beyond the human ability to interface with it.”
“So what will become critically important is creating information out of this vast amount of data. So to manage all of this data, you’re gonna need performance processing that’s supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Tomek Rys the director for Communications & Airspace Management Systems under the umbrella Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said at a special Raytheon sixth-generation aircraft focused webinar.
For instance, “smart sensors” able to gather, analyze and organize vast volumes of combat information in milliseconds, using AI-fortified algorithms, are now being built into airframes themselves to combine new sensing technology without increasing an aircraft’s radar signature.
“As we look to sixth-generation aircraft, the mission computers and the onboard processing infrastructure and architecture will be critical. Mission computers today use data from sensors to grade a clear picture in the battlefield and control combat and weapon systems to gain air dominance. The computer processing power for sixth-gen aircraft will reach levels well beyond what is available on current platforms,” Rys said.
Interestingly, multifunctional hardware may mean that some new high-speed smart sensors may be applied in various stealthy configurations by being woven into a fuselage. The absence of an external antenna, pod or structured array of some kind removes otherwise more radar-detectable structures from an airframe. For instance, an essay from Jain University’s International Institute for Aerospace Engineering states that “Smart sensors and smart antenna arrays with adaptive properties would be embedded into the structure of an aircraft.”
At the same time, while massive increases in sensor ranges, data-sharing and long-range connectivity will continue to bring as-of-yet unprecedented advantages to warfare operations, there are also challenges that emerge as combat becomes more networked. Referring to this phenomenon as creating clusters of embedded intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the NATO Joint Air Power Competence Center paper warns of security risks of such “hyper-connectivity.”
New much-longer range sensors and weapons, incorporating emerging iterations of AI, are expected to make warfare more disaggregated and much less of a linear force-on-force type of engagement. Such a phenomenon, driven by new technology, underscores warfare reliance upon sensors and information networks. All of this, naturally, requires the expansive “embedded ISR” discussed by the NATO paper. Network-reliant warfare is potentially much more effective in improving targeting and reducing sensor-to-shooter time over long distances, yet it brings a significant need to organize and optimize the vast flow of information such as a system requires.
“Not everybody in the network needs to see and hear everything. There needs to be a hierarchy, and a backup architecture for degraded network operations,” the paper writes.
This is where AI comes in, as information can be organized, tailored and therefore streamlined properly in optimal ways to prevent overload or some kind of information “clutter.”
These types of challenges—wherein vast amounts of ISR data need to be aggregated, analyzed and organized—are precisely what AI and high-speed processing can address. Advanced algorithms, real-time analytics and computing power can instantly identify and disseminate key items of combat relevance, thereby establishing priorities and massively quickening the human decision cycle.
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.