What Will U.S. 6th-Generation Fighter Jets Look Like?

A military aviation expert describes what the US' future sixth-generation fighter jet might look like

Above: AFRL's conceptual sixth generation fighter.Screenshot/US Air Force

By Daniel Brown, Business Insider

  • A military aviation expert told Business Insider what a sixth generation fighter might look like, after the US Air Force Research Laboratory released a video teasing the future aircraft.
  • Richard Aboulafia, a military aviation expert at the Teal Group, said that he expects it to be more about the accompanying systems — the weapons, outboard sensors, drones, etc. — than the air vehicle.
  • He also said that while he's not in favor of an unmanned system or high energy lasers, the two capabilities are certainly possible.

The US Air Force Research Laboratory released a video in late March showing what a sixth-generation fighter jet might be like, as part of a push to plug its Science and Technology 2030 initiative.

The video shows a conceptual sixth-generation fighter jet, known as the F-X, firing what appears to be a high-energy laser that cuts another fighter in half.

It's still unclear what capabilities a sixth-generation fighter would have. Some have speculated it could have travel at hypersonic speeds, be able to switch between a manned and an unmanned aircraft, and more.

When Business Insider asked AFRL what capabilities it expects a sixth generation fighter to hold, a spokesperson declined to comment.

So we spoke to Richard Aboulafia, a military aviation expert at the Teal Group, about what he thinks the next generation fighter will be able to do.

"It'll be less about the air vehicle, and more about the accompanying systems," Aboulafia told Business Insider. "The weapons, those friendly drones [loyal wingman], the outboard sensors — everything like that," adding that it probably wouldn't have a heavy payload because it would reduce stealth.

"Obviously next-generation low observability," Aboulafia said, and "definitely a return to supercruise, which we had on the F-22, but do not have on the F-35," adding that there would probably be a "return to an emphasis on kinematics ... the ability to launch a missile with that extra speed behind it."

But "what probably matters most is what you might call hyperconnectivity," Aboulafia said. "So not only are you receiving instant real-time data from outboard sensors but it's being fused in front of you" so that "the pilot can work with loyal wingmen — basically unmanned drones that can do your bidding on the battlefield."

Aboulafia said the aircraft would need to be "constantly communicating about what might need to be replaced or serviced" and that "all this has to be extremely non-interceptable [with a] low-chance of jamming, [and] low chance of intercept."

"The enemy is going to try to jam everything," he said.

Potential downsides of new technology

Not all of the new technology that is floated around for a sixth-generation fighter would neccesarily be beneficial to the aircraft.

As for high energy lasers, "it's conceivable," Aboulafia said, "but getting to that place has taken a very long time and might continue to take a very long time."

Aboulafia highlighted the potential dangers of such a weapon. "What would the range of this thing be? he asked rhetorically. "I don't know, but once you fire it, you better be careful."

"A really good air-to-air missile can go 30, 40, 50 miles," Aboulafia said. "You do that with a laser, [and] there might be all sorts of complications" since anything in its path might get hit.

The high energy laser on AFRL's conceptual sixth-generation F/X.Screenshot/US Air Force

Aboulafia also said he wasn't in favor of an unmanned system.

"I've always hated that idea ... the perfect unmanned fighter is a missile," Aboulafia said. "If you have an asset you wish to preserve, then having a pilot on board is the most cost-effective insurance policy ever ... now, if you're doing something that involves long-range penetration like a bomber, optionally unmanned makes all the sense in the world, very good chance it's a one-way trip anyway."

"But a fighter? ... Why aren't you just using a lot of missiles? In other words, if you're talking about a $100 million asset, having someone on board is a good way to preserve it," he said.

Ultimately, though, Aboulafia said that lasers and an unmanned system are "on the list of possibilities."

Aboulafia said that he expects the sixth generation fighter to fly between Mach 2.2 and 2.5, and that "you'll see a plane flying sometime in the late 2020s and entering into service sometime in the mid 2030s."

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