Disclaimer: We are not going to find reasons as to why there is so less discussion on 6th generation Fighters, rather the question is more of rhetorical.
Change is the only constant, said Heraclitus, Greek philosopher. Well Heraclitus wouldn’t have felt more right if he were to see today’s fighter jets & from where they have evolved. In the last 7 decades of the Jet age, the basic flying machine has evolved into an aircraft that flies faster than sound, can see hundreds of miles away & is almost undetectable from the ground. And this advancement is not stopping anywhere soon. Leading manufacturers from all over the world have been developing the 5.5 as well as 6th generation fighters & today we’re discussing exactly the same.
Before that, let’s look at the evolution of different generations of fighter aircraft classified according to the technological advancements incorporated in them:
- 1st Generation (1950s): Had high subsonic speed & a jet engine.
- 2nd Generation (mid 1950s & 1960s): Incorporated Radar, swept wings & adjustable horizontal stabilizers. This was the first generation to use afterburning turbojet, Aluminium in construction & basic IR/radar guided missiles.
- 3rd Generation (mid 1960s to 1970s): Emphasis on manoeuvrability & speed. This generation started using analogue avionics & matured guided missiles.
- 4th Generation (1970s to present): This generation saw the advent of Fly by wire system by the use of digital flight computers. Beyond visual range combat also started in 4th generation with AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.
- 4.5 Generation (1990s to present): This were the enhanced 4th generation fighters with reduced radar signature, AESA Radar, high capacity data link, ever upgraded avionics, thrust vectoring etc.
- 5th Generation (2005 to Present): Main focus on stealth. Also incorporated low-probability of intercept radars, supercruising ability, advanced avionics & highly integrated systems capable of networking with other elements within battlespace.
Now coming to the next generation of fighters, to understand what are the new technologies of a 6th generation fighter, we have to first see how a conflict looks like in 20 or 30 years from now. Beyond 2050, conflicts of the world & as well as the weapons used in them would be dominated by information, collaboration & coordination. 6th gen fighters which are a concept as of now will mature & take the crown that fighters like F-22 wears today. Some key technological advances in 6th gen fighters that I envisage today are:
- Artificial Intelligence: Future fighter jets will have AI enabled software that will do the mundane tasks that pilots have to do today like operating the radio, setting the course, maintaining speed & altitude. All these tasks will be taken care of by artificial intelligence. Pilots will be more focused on performing the mission with a much greater efficiency. Machine learning (ML) will make the aircraft smarter & it’ll be able to take key decisions on its own.
- Computing power: To have all this AI & ML in the backend will need higher computing power & hence the computers & avionics will be much faster. Apollo 11, the first spacecraft to land on moon in 1969 had computers much slower than our basic smartphones today; 6th gen fighters will have flight computers as fast as our super computers today.
- Engines: To power such high performance computers & radar, the engines have to be powerful as well. Next generation engines will possibly be more efficient, lightweight & maintenance friendly. Also the exhaust will be cooled as the main enemy of the current 5th generation fighters is not the enemy’s radar but their OLS (optical locator system – Pic above). These systems “look” for the fighter’s thermal signature, majority of which is coming out of the exhaust as thrust. So the thrust will be cooled after being mixed with the colder high altitude air. Many think this would reduce the thrust, but no. As we see here in the formula, Thrust is independent of the temperature.
- Cooling of Skin: As mentioned earlier, even the current 5th generation fighter can be located & tracked by the OLS at ranges of about 100 km thanks to the heat emitted by the aircraft body due to air friction. In future, the body panels will have temperature controlled tiles which will exhibit the same temperature as the surrounding, making it difficult for the enemy’s OLS to detect the fighter aircraft. This technology is currently being adopted in next generation Main Battle Tanks to reduce their thermal signature.
- Controlling Swarm Drones: Fighters in future will not really be an individual entity. They will be a part of a huge system of other fighters, ground assets & drones. These manned fighters will have the capability to control & direct a huge number of Swarm Drones which will act as the fighter’s extended arms and sensors.
- Data Fusion: As there will be a large number & a different variety of drones flying with the aircraft, they will generate huge amounts of data from their sensors. This data will be fused together in the mother ship (the 6th gen fighter) & will be processed into useful information which will give the pilot a much clearer situational awareness. This will paint a full picture of the battlefield to the pilot as shown in the pic below. The flower petals here are representation of enemy’s radar range & vector.
- Network Centric Capabilities: This is the same point as above where in the aircraft can communicate seamlessly with other friendly element in the Area of Responsibility (AoR). This can be drones, ground based radar stations etc. For instance the detection radars from ground can pick up a target & can project its location on the screen of the fighter jet flying above, allowing the jet to pursue the target & take necessary action.
- Optionally manned: The next generation of fighters can be flown without a pilot in missions which require long hours or possess a certain higher degree of danger. The cockpit controls will be monitored & tweaked via actuators which will be guided by a remote station on ground by Satcom. US already tested this by developing an unmanned version of the F-16 (pic above).
- There would be only single seat versions as most of the training will be on simulator. Even today the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning, J-20, Su-57 Felon don’t have a twin seat trainer.
- Directed Energy (DE) Weapons: we talked about greater power generation from engines earlier. This electrical power will also be used in directed energy weapons. These are like an intense & high density laser which can fry the avionics of the target. One such system is already under development in US as well as in DRDO, India.
US & UK are already in the race to build a 6th generation fighter. US have their hands full with F/A-XX fighter & UK is developing the Tempest. Tempest is said to have features like continuous deep learning for evolving threats.
It is fascinating to see the amount of technology that goes behind the development of these aircraft. There might still be a lot of things that we have not covered & we’ll only know in a decade or so when the prototypes of these machines start flying. One thing is for certain, technology keeps evolving & future keeps surprising us.
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