Air Force 6th Gen Stealth Fighter & F-35 Will Fly Together Until 2070

Kris Osborn

Video Above: The Army Research Laboratory is now engineering new rocket, missile and artillery rounds

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The fact that the Air Force’s new 6th-Gen aircraft has taken to the skies raises too many interesting questions to engage at one time, however …. many might wonder .. who built the one that flew already? What it might mean for the F-35 and F-22?

While the actual vendor responsible for producing the first Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-gen stealth fighter to fly is not available for understandable security reasons, there are only a handful of vendors capable of engineering something like this. While specifics are not known or available, and no vendor has actually confirmed that a prototype actually exists, some of the main players likely capable of building a 6th Gen aircraft might be Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman or Boeing, to name a few.

Lockheed and Northrop of course have extensive experience and expertise regarding stealth technology, an attribute any 6th Gen fighter is most likely to incorporate, however there is little value in speculating given the importance of secrecy to the project. After all, next to nothing is of course known about the new, fast-progressing B-21 stealth bomber slated for its first flight in the next year or two.

However, it takes little imagination to examine many of the most cutting edge technical trends with a mind to their likely impact upon any kind of new 6th Gen platform. One immediate and interesting question relates to the F-35, which the Air Force plans to fly and upgrade until 2070.

While early subcomponent prototyping and conceptual was underway over the last year, some raised the question as to whether it made sense to even build a new airframe given the promise and sophistication of the F-35. There are two interesting points here, one is that there likely are technological advances significant enough to inspire an interest in building an entirely new platform, and the other is the expectation that a huge priority will be placed upon 5th-to-6th gen interoperability and massive amounts of continued F-35 modernization.

As for the first point, some early questions seem to have been resolved to a certain extent, given that a new 6th-Gen aircraft has already flown. Previous deliberations regarding a 6th Gen fighter balanced themselves upon what may at the time have been the unknown maturity of various promising new weapons and technologies nearing a threshold of operational possibility. For instance, some now-in-development next-generation stealth technologies, including new radar-evading configurations, coating materials and advanced thermal-signature reduction are fast-approaching levels of combat readiness. Also, work on new stealth or artificial-intelligence-enabled sensors to ensure overmatch for decades to come may be showing promise as well.

Air Force developers seem to have come to the belief that new generations of stealth-fighter technology were sufficiently “approaching” if not “here,” inspiring a wish to build a new platform and push the current “art-of-the-possible” to the maximum extent.

This challenge, explored by a Naval Postgraduate School essay called “The 6th-Generation Quandry,” posed the question as to whether it might be equally if not more effective to postpone formal sixth-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 cites “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 leverage current technological progress.

This issue, framed years ago by this essay, seems to have evolved in some interesting ways, at least to the point wherein the Air Force decided to go ahead and “build” a new 6th Gen aircraft.

In and of itself, the decision answers some questions and seems to suggest that indeed sufficiently impactful new technologies were here or arriving to an extent justifying the interest in building a new jet. At the same time, the F-35 and F-22 are going nowhere.

The other, potentially less recognized element of this is simply that a 6th-Gen aircraft will be expected to complement and operate alongside the F-35. Not only does the Air Force plan to acquire more than 1,700 F-35s, but the service plans to fly the aircraft well into the 2070s. Plans for this include the often referred to Air Force’s continuous development upgrade program intended for the F-35. Many of the anticipated huge breakthrough technologies are expected to be software-reliant, computer-based or related to advanced sensing and AI, therefore enabling a jet like the F-35 to make massive leaps forward in performance without needing a new airframe configuration. Lockheed engineers built the F-35 with this in mind, meaning it was technically configured to be upgradeable for decades.

Since several of the artistic renderings of the plane show an absence of tail fins or any vertical structures, perhaps 6th-gen aircraft will be stealthier? Perhaps it will be faster and more maneuverable than its 5th-Gen predecessors? These could truly be crucial attributes given well documented rapid advances in enemy air defenses.

For example, the F-35’s sensor fusion already encompasses early iterations of AI, given that advanced computer algorithms are able to aggregate, analyze, organize and transmit clear, integrated information to pilots. New yet-to-exist sensors and weapons configurations could be accommodated by this kind of technical infrastructure.

Stealth coating can be maintained and upgraded, weapons’ lethality and guidance systems can be upgraded with software as we have seen with the both the F-35 and F-22, and engine enhancements decreasing heat emissions or increasing propulsion and maneuverability are also entirely possible as well. What this means is all the evidence points to the continued, long-term operational relevance of the F-22 and F-35. The Air Force already plans to fly the F-35 until 2070 and the F-22 all the way to 2060.

Newer networking technologies, such as radios able to connect F-22s and F-35s in stealth mode and two-way LINK 16 connectivity between the two 5th-Gen platforms means secure interoperability between 5th and 6th gen fighters is expected, a technological scenario enabling a massive expansion in tactical warfare possibilities.

Also, perhaps the faster-than-expected development of a 6th-Gen aircraft is in part intended to address the problems that there are insufficient numbers of F-22s in the fleet. The air-to-air dominance, continued upgrades and combat performance of the F-22 led many senior Air Force leaders to argue in favor of re-starting F-22 production. The decision at the time wound up being not to restart F-22 production, due to budget constraints. However, perhaps the thinking was to simply build a newer, better, even more capable F-22-like platform able to leverage and optimize several breakthrough technologies. Some of the artistic renderings or concepts of 6th-Gen aircraft show a dual-engine configuration as well as other visible attributes somewhat analogous to the F-22 with things like wing shape. Could a 6th-Gen fighter be an even better, newer, stealthier F-22-type aircraft? Could that at least be part of the rationale for why the F-22 production line has not been restarted in recent years?

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the new 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.

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