MOSCOW --- Russian and US designers are working out the requirements to sixth-generation fighter aircraft, according to the Gazeta.ru online news agency.
The United States has long researched into future air superiority aircraft technologies and tactics intended for the foreseeable future. According to the Defense News weekly, after the research, the United States has made its first steps toward developing the future fighter.
It is increasingly clear to the Pentagon that the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II advanced multirole fighters will be unable to remain in service for decades, because their capabilities will have grown obsolete considerably in 15 years.
"The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against this array of potential adversary capabilities," says the US Air Force 2030 Air Superiority Plan.
"The development and productionizing of Russian and Chinese new-generation fighters will throw a gauntlet to the current uncontested US air domination in the near future: the US military expect this to happen in 2028-2030. Given the F-35’s development record, they do not even hope for the development of its successor before 2040. Now, they are faced with a task to come up at least with the preliminary requirements to the next generation of US fighters and figure out whether the development can be sped up so that the early prototypes crop up by as soon as 2030," expert Anton Lavrov says.
The devising of the sixth-generation fighter aircraft requirements is on full swing. Conceptual views have evolved into a set of standards dubbed Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). Sometimes, the document is called Penetrating Counter Air (PCA).
Brigadier General Alexus Grynkewich, a participant in the Air Superiority 2030 Program, has told the Defense News weekly in an interview: "We need to have something by the late 2020s."
"I think a realistic timeline is somewhere around 2028 with key investments in some key technology areas," he said. In such a case, in the general’s opinion, the USAF will manage to gain an initial operational capability of a penetrating counter-air capability.
"I guess the realistic time for the developing of the sixth-generation fighter is in the neighborhood of 2028 if investments are made into key areas of the technologies required," he said.
Proceeding from the results of the recent research under the Air Superiority 2030 Program, US analysts presume the future USAF dominance will not be based on a single platform, e.g. a sixth-generation fighter. US designers believe it is likely to be an integrated networked family of systems. In their opinion, such a combination of diverse capabilities should include not only the fighter as a platform, but a whole range of electronic warfare systems as well.
US looks to family of combat aircraft
The US military assumes that the sixth-generation aircraft will rather resemble a set of sensors than a simple means of clobbering the enemy.
At present, the work to this purpose has been in progress at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where researchers are looking into sophisticated technologies and refining the requirements under the NGAD concept. The work takes into account virtually all parameters, including the aircraft’s survivability, combat radius and ordnance load. According to US analysists, the research should be completed as soon as possible, because otherwise the USAF will hardly get a sixth-generation fighter before 2040, if the development and acquisition go at the usual pace.
The key to success will be simultaneous projects on the development of engines, avionics and weapons, which will then be integrated into the sixth-generation fighter. Intermediate and final results are supposed to be tested by means of modeling and simulation. To integrate the various systems into a single platform will be the most difficult and risky aspect of the sixth-generation fighter jet’s development, but the risks can be driven to the minimum through prototyping, Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich believes, and it is prototypes that can be used for debugging the final product.
"By the way, the Air Force is trying to flush the words "sixth generation fighter" from its lexicon. Even the service’s initial terminology for an F-35 follow on - Next Generation Air Dominance - is being eschewed in favor of the label "Penetrating Counter Air."
“You start to have an argument over what does 'sixth gen' mean. Does it have laser beams, is it hypersonic? What is it? What does it look like? That’s not a useful conversation," Grynkewich said.
"The more useful conversation is, what are the key attributes we need in order to gain and maintain air superiority in 2030?" the general stressed.
The US Air Force is all for including cutting-edge technologies into the future fighter’s development program, but it is not about to let the work follow the directions that do not guarantee concrete results yet.
"For this purpose, they ponder the feasibility of ditching the concept of air superiority in all respects and still exotic technologies, e.g. directed-energy weapons or hypersonic speed. The US military has also been wondering if the future aircraft really needs the customary attributes of the fighter, such as the superagility, high-g capability or an in-built gun. Net-centric capabilities, improved weapons and a longer range seem to be more valuable to it. However, all this pondering is still at a very early stage, and practice proves that the requirements may change here radically and quickly," Lavrov explained.
Asked about his vision of the future fighter jet, a present-day fighter jock would certainly say that it is a plane with two vertical stabilizers, an automatic gun and the 9-g capability.
"The outcome may not turn out to resemble a traditional fighter jet… Requirements are not set in stone and could change during the AOA process… But range and payload will be two of the most important attributes of the aircraft. NGAD, like other fighter jets, will need to be able to penetrate enemy air defenses, but it will also need to be able to operate at greater distances than current platform," General Grynkewich notes.
Russia also working on sixth-gen fighter design
The work on the sixth generation of fighters is under way in Russia as well.
In July 2016, Vladimir Mikheyev, advisor to director general of the Radio Electronic Technologies (KRET), said sixth-generation warplanes will be unmanned, i.e. able to climb to near space and have optional controls - with or without the pilot. According to Russian Aerospace Force Commander-in-Chief Victor Bondarev, "the unmanned operation capability is among the requirements to the sixth-generation fighter." In addition, the aircraft should be able "to go hypersonic and be multirole, supermaneuverable and low-observable."
"There are plans for developing the Russian "sixth-generation" of fighters, but the understanding of what it should be, what technologies should be used and what rivals it will oppose is yet to come," Lavrov says.
For instance, there is a huge number of problems with hypersonic aircraft. In particular, the United States has repeatedly tried to test them at hypersonic speed, but most of the prototypes have failed to survive even several minutes in this mode.
"Before we start talking the sixth generation, we have to debug the fifth generation first. Work on the sixth generation is necessary, of course, but I would not issue statements that our future fighter will take to the air in a mere six years, in 2023. A mock-up may fly, of course, but will it represent the sixth generation? Even common criteria for sixth generation are nonexistent today to specify how it differs from the fifth one, say, in terms of radar stealth or superagility. In a word, we need to hash out what the sixth generation [fighter] is in the first place," expert Andrei Frolov said.
Expert Andrei Fomin believes that "the generation-wise breakdown of combat planes is rather relative." "And various air forces approach these matters differently. The concept of the fifth-generation fighter has barely evolved to date. Its features setting it apart from the fourth-generation planes are its low radar observability, supercruise capability, internal weapon carriage and some other peculiarities," Fomin said.
As for the design of the hypothetical sixth-generation fighter, it is everybody’s guess for now. Fomin stresses that a document spelling out its concept has not been heard of either in Russia or overseas, and whatever is said about the sixth-generation aircraft is speculation.
"Both the Americans and we will have our hands full with the fifth-generation planes for years to come. Nonetheless, it is obvious that aviation science is not sitting on its hands, and various options are being considered and run through mathematical modelling. However, concrete solutions are still a long way off. Therefore, it is impossible to say with certainty now what kind of aircraft the sixth-generation fighter will be - manned or not, hypersonic or not, etc. So far, this is more akin to discussion and preliminary research," the expert told the Gazeta.ru news portal. -