Here's What You Need to Know: Technology is increasingly blurring the lines between supposedly well-defined concepts.
(This article first appeared in September 2019.)
In the last few years, several countries have seemingly committed themselves to developing a new sixth-generation of manned jet fighters to succeed today’s fifth-generation stealth fighters, like the F-35 Lightning and the Chinese J-20.
Russia and Japan are interested in interceptors, such as Japan’s Mitsubishi F-3 and Russia’s MiG-41. In Europe, the interest is in a multi-role fighter—notably France and Germany’s Next-Generation Fighter, part of a broader Future Combat Air System (FCAS), and the UK’s Tempest project. These will theoretically enter service in the late 2030s or 2040s.
For years, the U.S. Air Force’s foremost concept for its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform was the Penetrating Counter-Air—a long-range escort fighter designed primarily to accompany and protect its forthcoming B-21 stealth bombers into hostile airspace.
Meanwhile, the Navy solicited concepts for the FA-XX-likely to optimized as fleet defense interceptor, given the more strike-oriented characteristics of its F-35C stealth fighters.
Early in 2019, Chinese media claimed domestic aviation firms were investigating the development of a sixth-generation fighter too.
But what “sixth-generation jet” entails remains entirely theoretical. This earlier article details the various expected characteristics, which briefly summarized include: renewed emphasis on speed and range while retaining radar-stealth; directed-energy weapons; AI-assistance; ability to optionally deploy unmanned; networked sensors; evolved electronic warfare capabilities; and remote control of drones.
But in my discussions with analysts and industry experts, many were skeptical that any of these projects would ever get off the ground—at least as manned aircraft. On one hand, they cite the immense budgets and political will necessary to build them; and on the other, they bring up the rapidly growing availability of cheaper, unmanned alternatives.
Today’s F-35 fighters took well over two decades to develop and dozens of billions of dollars in a process fraught with technical delays, cost overruns and attendant political controversy. And the F-35 was intended to be relatively affordable! Even the Pentagon may not want to revisit that experience.
Recently, drone manufacturer Kratos began promoting Valkyrie ‘Loyal Wingman’ drones costing only $2 or $3 million dollars each—meaning they are ‘attritable.’ In other words, losing a few in action is an acceptable loss. Sure, the fighter-like Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) might be less capable and more vulnerable individually than an $85 million F-35A—but you could theoretically procure twenty to thirty for the price of one hard-to-kill stealth jet.
A September 2019 article by Tyler Rogoway at The Drive suggests that the Air Force may have turned the corner in its past reticence to abandon manned jet fighters in favor of unmanned systems. The article is well worth a read in full, but here are two of its key points:
“A tailless, stealthy, comparatively long-range tactical jet that many had labeled a sixth-generation fighter had been the focus of the Air Force's plans …. The fiscal realities of producing such an aircraft that would require a long development period would have made it very unlikely to materialize…”
“…as Next Generation Air Dominance has evolved, it has steadily shifted more and more toward unmanned and pilot-optional concepts linked together by powerful networks so that they can operate at least semi-autonomously, if not autonomously, as necessary.”
That isn’t to say the Air Force sees no role for manned aircraft. Indeed, a general posits in a recent article in Air Force Magazine that the B-21 stealth bomber, or similar platform, could assume air superiority role instead, while serving as a ‘mothership’ slinging long-range air-to-air missiles and controlling a bevy of expendable drones. Maintaining command-and-control links indeed may be one of the major challenges of long-range UAS warfare
Another new concept floated is the ‘single-use’ drone presumably costing a few million dollars, built to perform a combat mission it isn’t expected to survive. This may seem insane, until one considers that the Pentagon regularly slings dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles costing over a $1.4 million each.
In effect, technology is increasingly blurring the lines between supposedly well-defined concepts, such as what a ‘fighter,’ ‘drone’ and ‘missile’ should resemble.
Is the Sixth Generation Fighter Dead in Europe?
But even if the U.S. Air Force is apparently changing course, will air forces around the globe come to the same conclusion? European governments and aviation companies alike appear to be committing a lot of political capital to their sixth-generation projects, which appear to have advanced to the mockup stage.
I reached out to two European aviation analysts to as their opinion as to whether they think the manned sixth-generation jet will ever make it off the ground.
Murielle Delaporte, editor of French quarterly defense magazine Opérationnels SLDS, was cautiously optimistic:
“Both the timeframe and the budget remain speculative at this point. As far as the Franco-German FCAS program goes, the approach is certainly on the “granular” side of things with an incremental aggregation of new capabilities and high technologies depending on the political will to carry things on. Right now, the level of spending by the German defense budget may not be perceived as enough, but this could change with upcoming elections. Adding Spain to the party also helps not only politically, but also financially as the European defense fund can be triggered as well.”
In her view, continental Europe’s political currents may impel the FCAS program despite its costs.
“What is certain is that there is a true political boost in France to put an end to declining military capabilities and staffing, as well as a neo-Gaullist approach to sovereignty and determination to remain in the next-gen aerospace game. Whether it is 6th gen or not, the first step is “next generation” with a continuous process of upgrades for the Rafale [jet fighter] which should lead to the NGF (next-gen fighter), with an emphasis on maneuverability, stealth and data-fusion.”
Delaporte argues just because the FCAS is an exquisite, fighter-like aircraft doesn’t mean it's design won’t be steeped in the philosophy of networked warfare using swarming drone platforms. FCAS and Tempest, after all, are being developed in tandem with various drones, following successful testing of the Taranis and nEUROn stealth UASs.
“Indeed, the awareness that tomorrow’s air forces and armed forces in general will not operate alone, and that one now reasons on the basis of connected ‘systems of systems’ and combat cloud rather than on the basis of platforms has led to recent decisions to boost innovation where France—and Europe—needs it the most, i.e.: space, IA, electronic warfare, etc.”
“There is therefore a vision; there is a budget boosting new high-tech; there is a lot of thinking about reinventing the forces in terms of staff and processes: it might be necessary to wait till 2050 or 2060 to have a full picture, but the ingredients are there for moving forward. Next-gen is definitely coming starting today with capabilities such as the Rafale F4 and the Phenix MRTT.”
The Phénix MRTT is a long-range tanker variant of the A330 airliner that can also serve as surveillance and command-and-control platform all rolled into one—enhancing the effectiveness of both manned and unmanned systems.
Dr. Krzsyzstof Kuska, a Polish aviation analyst and contributor to Jane’s and other defense publications, was slightly more pessimistic about economic constraints:
“The global slowdown is already clearly visible on the horizon, with indicators such as housing market and automotive industry slowing down. To answer the question about the sixth-generation fighters we would first have to answer the question about the health of the economy and predict the start of the next recession which, as mentioned in the beginning, is long overdue. The 2030–2040 horizon means that we will have to deal with an economic crisis at some point and the 2030 time frame might be very plausible. Is pumping money into 6th gen feasible in a crisis environment? If not, only some of the projects might ‘survive.’ Can Europe have two separate advanced fighter projects?”
Kuska also highlights the squeeze that skyrocketing jet fighter costs putting on a numerically adequate air force.
“Looking at it from another perspective we have a steady trend of smaller and smaller air forces with numbers of aircraft reduced with each generation. Will the 6th gen break this trend or sustain it? If yes, we will have to somehow fill the battlefield with platforms, and drones are a natural path. The 5G telephony revolution is on the horizon and it might change many things. Sophisticated AI might also be just around the corner. Quantum computers are no longer something we dream about but something we have to deal with. If we combine everything a pilot being, in fact, a battlefield manager flying in a 6th generation fighter with a swarm of drone accompanying him is the most likely scenario.”
Ironically, Kuska points out that advanced new war planes might actually become more unaffordable should a major conflict occur. “In such circumstances there might be not enough money to fund a war and sustain development of advanced air systems.”