The Air Force’s vision for a sixth-generation stealth fighter include, incredible speeds, improved stealth and the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
In fact, already a prototype of the secret plane has already taken to the sky, yet virtually all details regarding the stealth fighter are naturally kept unavailable for security reasons. As a result, speculation of about the new fighter jet continues to run rampant.
Current work on a futuristic sixth-generation fighter—to come after and fly alongside upgraded F-35s fighter jets—likely includes the development of stealthy drone fighters, hypersonic flight, lasers, new precision weaponry and advanced AI able to organize targeting data in milliseconds.
What little is known can be found in an Oct. 5, 2020 Congressional Research Service report on Next Gen Air Dominance, called “Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance Program: An Introduction.” The CRS essay cites several likely areas of technological exploration and does specify “propulsion” as the one formally “acknowledged” sought after NGAD attribute.
“Over the past few years, the Air Force has invested substantially in variable cycle engines. Other likely candidates include new forms of stealth; advanced weapons, including directed energy; and thermal management. The current engine on the F-35 and its variants expected to be on the B-21 produce a tremendous amount of electrical power that can enable new weapons. That could require advanced techniques to manage generated heat, so that it does not become part of the aircraft signatures and make the plane easier to detect,” the CRS report states.
Next-generation stealth technology is also, of course, likely to impact the issue of “generated heat” cited in the CRS report. Newer radar-absorbing coating materials, improved IR suppressants or thermal signature management, evolved radar-eluding configurations and acoustic reduction technologies offer a window into current areas of developmental focus. An interesting 2013 Essay by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee seems to anticipate some of these technical approaches by discussing the evolution of advanced heat reduction technologies built into the “skin” of an aircraft.
“To become low-observable in multiple spectrums, advanced skins manage a plane’s heat distribution to foil radar, infrared, and thermal detection systems. These skins do this by distorting or eliminating heat distribution to restructure its thermal shape. They may also be able to heat up or cool down all parts of an aircraft’s surface to perfectly match the surrounding atmosphere, making it virtually undetectable,” the report, titled “The Future of Combat Aircraft: Toward a 6th Generation Aircraft,” writes.
As for lethality, a write up in Popular Mechanics says the Air Force is working on a new “long-range, air-to-air missile, the AIM-260 for the F-35 and other jets.”
“The AIM-260 is designed to “out-stick” Russian and Chinese fighters, like the Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon” and Chengdu J-20, shooting them down before their American opponents come within range of their own missiles,” the Popular Mechanics story states.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.