The sixth-generation fighters will be expected to operate in highly contested areas that could even make F-35 and F-22 pilots sweat, and as such, they’ll have to be highly survivable. That means leveraging stealth and electric warfare capabilities to limit engagement, and likely, leveraging technology like the Navy’s laser-induced plasma filament holograms to trick air defense systems and inbound infrared seeking missiles.
This is just one form of “integrated self-protection” that 6th generation fighters will likely carry into the fight as air defenses grow more capable and aircraft adapt to a new battlefield.
F/X or Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter jet
The US Air Force (USAF) is seemingly ahead of its counterparts in the race for the development of a six-generation fighter aircraft. The US Air Force Research Laboratory released a rendering of the next-generation aircraft F/X in March 2018, which indicated the aircraft will have a sleek, stealthy design with a high-energy laser capable of cutting enemy aircraft in half.
Also known as Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) or Penetrating Counter Air, the future aircraft is expected to have a longer range and larger payloads, as well as the ability to carry hypersonic weapons. The USAF has not yet chosen the manufacturer for the six-generation fighter aircraft and information about the capabilities of the F/X in public domain is currently not available.
Under the NGAD programme, the USAF aims to develop advanced capabilities such as connected air warfare systems including fighter aircraft, drones and networked platforms. Aimed at boosting air superiority, the programme could see the F/X fighters provide significantly enhanced stealth capabilities and work in coordination with unmanned vehicles.
The USAF has reportedly recently designed, built and tested a prototype of the new fighter jet. The demonstrator was developed and flown in a year. It remains unclear who designed and developed the prototype, but it is understood that advanced manufacturing technology was used to develop it. If the programme progresses at a rapid pace through streamlined processes and the use of technology, the fighter jet could join the USAF earlier than the planned 2030 timeline.
Future Combat Air System (FCAS)
A joint programme between Germany, France and Spain, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) will deliver a next-generation fighter (NGF), which will operate as part of a manned-unmanned teaming formation with attack and surveillance drones, known as ‘remote carriers’.
All the manned and unmanned elements will be connected by a combat Cloud that will be powered by artificial intelligence (AI). The air forces will be able to operate the FCAS sixth-generation aircraft at a safe stand-off distance while deploying the remote carriers in dangerous areas to deal with threats.
Key capabilities of the aircraft will include improved survivability with active and passive stealth features, enhanced situational awareness through advanced avionics and sensor suite. The fighter jet will also provide greater manoeuvrability, speed, and range, thanks to a powerful engine and advanced flight control system. The aircraft will be installed with novel effectors to ensure increased firepower, including stand-off kinetic loads, directed energy weapons, and electronic warfare capabilities.
Dassault Aviation and Airbus were awarded a joint concept study (JCS) contract by the French and German governments for the FCAS programme in February 2019. Dassault, Airbus and partners won the initial framework contract (Demonstrator Phase 1A) for the programme in February 2020.
Dassault is the prime contractor for the NGF and Airbus is the main partner. Airbus will collaborate with MBDA for the remote carriers and Thales for the combat Cloud system while Safran and MTU Aero Engines will work on the engines. According to the current schedule, prototype testing will commence in 2026 while service entry is scheduled for 2040.
Tempest is a next-generation combat air system with a future combat aircraft at its core. Launched by Britain in 2018, the Tempest fighter jet project is trilateral cooperation between the UK, Italy, and Sweden.
The combat aircraft will enter service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 2035 as a replacement for the Typhoon fighter. It will have an adaptable architecture suitable for a range of operations, with the provision to change software and hardware according to mission needs. Other key features include an advanced flight control system, enhanced survivability, and scalable autonomy.
Equipped with advanced technologies such as futuristic wearable cockpits using gaming technology, eye-tracking technology, and augmented reality, the aircraft will serve the RAF for the next 60 years. Other technologies to be incorporated in the aircraft include stealth, optional manning, directed-energy weapons and hypersonic weapons.
The aircraft’s ability to exchange data with multiple platforms will provide armed forces with a comprehensive picture of the future battlespace. It will use swarming technologies to control drones while the Cooperative Engagement Capability will allow the platforms to coordinate during attack or defence operations. A futuristic radar technology, known as a multi-function radiofrequency system, being developed for Tempest will be able to provide over 10,000 times more data than existing systems. It will deliver significant advantage in combat situations through the ability to locate and target enemy platforms beforehand.
The industry team involved in the development of the future fighter jet includes BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, MBDA, and Leonardo. The 3D model of the Tempest aircraft was unveiled in July 2020.
Japan’s sixth-gen fighter
It has been revealed that the JASDF and MoD will determine a preliminary partnership framework for the development of the F-X fighter aircraft. While details remain light, it is expected that the formal draft will be finalised by December 2020.
Additionally, it has been revealed that funding for the F-X development program will reach about JPY28 billion (US$256.5 million) in FY2020.
A total of JPY16.9 billion of this funding (60 per cent) will be spent on “F-X related research projects”, said the spokesperson, with the remaining JPY11.1 billion (40 per cent) allocated for “conceptual design in Japan-led development” activity.
The complexity involved with the design, development and fielding of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft is well known, with the United States, China and Russia each facing development, manufacturing and delivery delays, combined with capability issues with the finished product – Japan has recognised this and has long pursued international collaboration in the development of the F-X.
Most notably, both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were actively pursued by Japan as a potential partner for the development of the F-X program, drawing on the experience of both global primes, despite export bans on their air dominance platforms: the F-22 Raptor and F-23 Black Widow, respectively.
However, recent changes within the US political establishment, notably the election of President Donald Trump, has triggered a major rethink in the policies that govern America’s arms exports, opening the door for Japan to engage with major US defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Both companies have a history of developing highly capable fighter systems; Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor is the world’s premier air superiority and air dominance fighter aircraft, while Northrop Grumman, largely famous for its UFO-like B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the new B-21 Raider bomber, competed with the Raptor design during the competition to replace the F-15 Eagle in the early ’90s with the YF-23 Black Widow.
The Black Widow, although unsuccessful in the competition, presented the US Air Force and now Japan with an incredibly stealthy, fast and manoeuvrable airframe.
The Japanese requests for information (RFI) identify that the program would be worth approximately US$40 billion for up to 100 new stealth fighters and would see increased global industry participation.
It is understood that Northrop has provided a suite of technologies that could be incorporated into the Japanese F-X project. Meanwhile, Boeing and European conglomerate BAE Systems have also been invited to contribute to the program in an attempt to spread development costs and burdens.
For Australia, allied involvement, particularly by the US and UK in the development of a new, fifth-generation air superiority fighter presents a number of opportunities. It could, in some way, call into question the procurement of the reliably troubled and delayed F-35 JSFs, 72 of which the nation has committed to purchasing.
Despite the international interest, largely driven by prime aerospace and defence giants, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the Japanese expect Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to be the lead contractor on the development of the next-generation air superiority fighter, with the first round of flight tests expected to begin in 2030.
Nevertheless, global partner participation has provided Australian industry with the opportunity to prove itself, particularly around the design and manufacturing phase, presenting Australian suppliers to the F-35 program with economic opportunities and incentives for wanting the project to proceed.
In particular, Marand and Quickstep Holdings enjoy existing global supply chain relationships with key US contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing that could place them in good standing to bring their advanced manufacturing and materials engineering solutions to the $40 billion project.
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