The U.S. Air Force envisions three categories of airborne DEWs: lower-powered lasers for disrupting or damaging enemy sensors and seekers, a mid-level tier capable of burning incoming air-to-air missiles out of the skies, and high-power class capable of destroying aircraft and ground targets. The air warfare branch plans to test an anti-missile laser turret in the early 2020s which may eventually be installed on bombers and F-35s.
Sixth-generation fighter programs remain strictly conceptual today, especially given the enormous expenses and effort devoted to working out the kinks in the Fifth-Generation. Many of the component technologies such as lasers, cooperative engagement, and unmanned piloting, are already in well under development, but integrating them into a single airframe will still prove a significant challenge.
At the earliest, sixth-generation fighters may crop up in the 2030s or 2040s—by which time concepts in air warfare will likely have evolved yet again.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.