Key Point: The F-35 isn't even combat ready yet and the next upgrade is already being called for.
The Navy is currently analyzing air frames, targeting systems, AI-enabled sensors, new weapons and engine technologies to engineer a new 6th-Generation fighter to fly alongside the F-35 and ultimately replace the F/A-18.
The Navy program, called Next-Generation Air Dominance, has moved beyond a purely conceptual phase and begun exploration of prototype systems and airframes as it pursues a new, carrier-launched 6th-Gen fighter to emerge in 2030 and beyond, service officials explained.
“Some important areas of consideration include derivative and developmental air vehicle designs, advanced engines, propulsion, weapons, mission systems, electronic warfare and other emerging technologies,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Chatmas told Warrior earlier this year.
A formal Analysis of Alternatives, expected to complete this year, is weighing the advantages of leveraging nearer-term existing technologies such as new variants or upgrades to cutting edge weapons, sensors and stealth configurations - or allowing more time for leap-ahead developmental systems to emerge.
The current analysis follows a now-completed Initial Capabilities Document detailing some of the sought-after requirements for the new aircraft, or “family of aircraft,” Chatmas explained.
Anticipated decisions about a 6th-Gen fighter balance themselves upon the as-of-yet unknown maturity of various promising new weapons and technologies nearing a threshold of operational possibility.
For instance, some now-in-development next-gen stealth technologies, including new radar-evading configurations, coating materials and advanced thermal-signature reduction are fast-approaching levels of combat readiness. Yet, absent a clear timeframe when, for example, new stealth or AI enabled sensors can ensure overmatch for decades to come, Navy developers are thinking it may make sense to push the current “art-of-the-possible” to the maximum extent. (To Read Warrior Maven's Report on Air Force 6th-Gen Prototyping - CLICK HERE)
This challenge, explored by a Naval Postgraduate School essay called “The 6th-Generation Quandry,” poses the question as to whether it might be equally if not more effective to postpone formal 6th-generation development until truly breakthrough advances emerge, while pursuing advanced variants of current, yet upgradable platforms in the interim.
The 2016 paper, from the Naval Postgraduate School Acquisition Research Program, cites a handful of current systems showing significant long-term promise. The paper sites “new models of the F-35 optimized for air combat,” the emerging B-21, drone-launching C-130 “mother ships” and “weapons truck arsenal planes” are positioned to optimize current technological progress.
These systems, including a B-52-like arsenal plane, unmanned fighter jets, AI-empowered sensors and new weapons with unprecedented range are designed to accommodate new iterations of AI, processing speeds, software upgrades and other incremental improvements.
According to this logic, there simply might not be enough of a margin of difference in performance between the best upgraded platforms of today - and something entirely new which could be built in the next 10 years or so.
Could these upgradable systems, fortified by new-iterations of stealth technology now being woven into the B-21, themselves be sufficient to propel naval aviation superiority for decades? This would alleviate the risk and expense of pursuing something truly “breakthrough” in the near term, potentially freeing up funding and resources to explore paradigm-changing air-fighter technologies for the long term.
Furthermore, current sensors, avionics and weapons systems are increasingly AI-reliant, a circumstance which makes it easier to greatly improve performance by integrating new algorithms, analytics or processing speed. In effect, all of this raises the question as to whether an entirely new airframe is truly needed to achieve overmatch in coming decades? By 2030?
These questions seem to be informing the current Navy rationale, which is to look at both new airframes as well as adaptations of the best of what’s available. The latter option brings its own advantages, because various industry developers are already building prototypes of 6th-Gen fighters with newly designed, stealthier airframes. Looking at applications of AI, miniaturized long-range sensors, targeting technology and drones operating with ever-increasing levels of autonomy - some contend that perhaps some of the most essential ingredients of long-term transformational technologies are, in effect, already here. This would be the basis upon which a nearer-term aircraft, drawing from some off-the-shelf-items, would be pursued.
Some of these decisions are also expected to be impacted by the success with which the Navy is able to keep extending the combat service life of the F/A-18. The Navy’s F/A-18 Service Life Extension Program has already extended the aircraft’s initial plans to fly 6,000 flight hours to 8,000 hours through a series of upgrades. Now, looking at the airframes and the state of cutting-edge avionics, the service is hoping to push its fleet of F/A-18s to 10,000 hours.
Navy officials tell Warrior these upgrades are significant and, in many cases, can bring the F/A-18 combat performance well into the future. Some of the adjustments start with the airframes themselves; Service Life “Assessment” Programs look to possibly replace the center “barrel” of the airframe and analyze the fatigue of the Nacelle (engine coating or skin), service officials say.
The F/A-18 upgrades also add new navigation technology, digital memory devices, mission computers, helmet-mounted cueing systems, Electronically Scanned Array Radar and an advanced targeting sensor called Infrared Search and Track, As a passive sensor, IRST enables better targeting while not emitting a signal, making it vulnerable to enemy electronic warfare attacks.
All Paths Point to 6th-Gen AI
There is widespread consensus that applications of AI appear to provide the framework for the most defining expected technological progress. In fact, a 2017 paper from a 16-nation 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 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.”
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. The absence of an external antenna, pod or structured array of some kind removes otherwise more radar-detectable structures from an airframe.
“Smart sensors and smart antenna arrays with adaptive properties would be embedded into the structure of an aircraft,” an essay from Jain University’s International Institute for Aerospace Engineering states. ( “Sensor Technology and Futuristic Of Fighter Aircraft, “ Jain Univ).
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 which emerge as combat becomes more networked. Referring to this phenomenon as creating clusters of “embedded ISR,” the Joint Air Power Competence Center paper warns of security risks and what it calls “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 paper. Network reliant warfare is of course 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, yet crucial, flow of information.
“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.
These types of challenges, wherein vast amounts of ISR data needs to be aggregated, analyzed and organized, are precisely what AI and high-speed processing can address. Using advanced algorithms and real-time analytics, computing power can instantly identify and disseminate key moments or items of combat relevance, thereby establishing priorities and massively quickening the human decision cycle.
AI-informed combat decisions, enabled by accelerated real-time analytics, allow human decision makers to draw upon otherwise inaccessible pools of data. Algorithms can integrate new information, instantly compare it against vast amounts of stored data, and come to informed conclusions without requiring human intervention. Often referred to as easing the "cognitive burden," AI and iterations of man-machine interface, can perform time-consuming or otherwise impossible information-analysis tasks, all while a human functions as ultimate decision-maker in a command and control role. While AI is quickly advancing toward being able to discern and organize seemingly subjective information, there are many decision-making abilities and problem solving faculties regarded as unique to human cognition.
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 a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This piece was first featured in August 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.