Key point: Laser weapons are already under development and a sixth-generation fighter might not be so far off. The problems are one of cost and also whether the plane will be ready when the lasers are.
U.S. arms-maker Lockheed Martin is developing a laser that could be small enough to arm a future, “sixth-generation” fighter plane, company officials told reporters on May 1, 2019.
But it’s not clear when the Pentagon might develop a new fighter. The laser could be ready before the plane is.
Reporter Ben Werner from USNI News attended Lockheed’s media briefing. “The High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance ... system is at the core of Lockheed Martin’s electronic warfare work,” Werner wrote.
The company expects to field a ship-based HELIOS system aboard an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer in 2021. However, technological advances are helping the company shrink the size of HELIOS from what is due for installation aboard a ship to what can possibly fit onto an airframe, said Tony Wilson, a Lockheed Martin F-35 test pilot.
“Being a tactical pilot in today’s age is really exciting. During my time, I’ve seen the leap from fourth-generation to fifth-generation, with the integration of stealth and sensor fusion,” Wilson said. “What I’m really looking forward to is the next-generation leap. That’s a sixth-gen fighter, where we not only take stealth and sensor integration, but we start adding things like directed energy weapons, drone swarm control.”
A laser has obvious advantages. It could be more accurate than a gun is. A fighter could fire many more laser shots than it could carry missiles, potentially boosting the plane’s magazine depth.
But it could be a long while before a new laser-armed fighter takes flight. The Air Force, in theory, is developing a new air-superiority system. But the new system might not take the form of a stand-alone, sixth-generation fighter, a team of Defense News reporters explained.
In 2016, the U.S. Air Force unveiled its “Air Superiority 2030” study, which posited that although the service would need a new air superiority fighter jet — called Penetrating Counter Air — as soon as the 2030s, it would be just as important that the new plane fit into a "family of systems” of space, cyber, electronic warfare and other enabling technologies.
The service then initiated an analysis of alternatives in 2017 to further drill down on Penetrating Counter Air concepts and to refine its requirements, but the service’s top uniformed officer sounds interested in a disaggregated mission approach.
“When you look at — through the lens of the network — and you look at air superiority as a mission, as a family-of-systems approach, you can see why you don’t hear me talking a lot about a replacement, A for B,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein told Defense News.
The Navy likewise is exploring technologies that could contribute to future air-combat missions, but the fleet hasn’t committed to developing a new fighter.
“In terms of technologies, the Navy is considering trades to balance capability, affordability and survivability across a [family of systems] and not limiting the analysis to a single aircraft to meet future threats,” Navy lieutenant Lauren Chatmas told Defense News. “Some important areas of consideration include derivative and developmental air vehicle designs, advanced engines, propulsion, weapons, mission systems, electronic warfare systems and numerous other emerging technologies and concepts.”
The services’ reluctance to commit potentially billions of dollars to new fighter develop makes sense. In 2019 the U.S. armed forces are struggling to afford the roughly 2,300 new fifth-generation F-35s they want to buy while also maintaining hundreds of older, fourth-generation fighters.
In 2018 then-defense secretary James Mattis instructed the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to boost fighter readiness to 80 percent by late 2019. But only the Navy with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is on track to reach the readiness threshold. Air Force squadrons flying F-16s, F-22s and F-35s are still struggling to keep planes in the air.
The Air Force moreover in its 2020 budget request has proposed to scale back F-35 production in favor of acquiring upgraded, fourth-generation F-15EXs. In that sense, the flying branch actually is moving away from a sixth-generation fighter.
Lockheed could succeed in shrinking down its HELIOS laser in order to fit a future fighter plane before any new plane is ready to carry it. Alternatively, the company could offer the laser as an upgrade for existing fighters. But directed-energy weapons require more electrical power than today’s fighters easily can generate.