So far, the “Fifth Generation” of fighter jet aircraft is looking pretty tepid. The F-22 was simply too expensive and plagued with problems, both technical and political. The controversy behind the under-performing, over-budget, andoverdue F-35 is growing to near mythical proportions. Even the Russian PAK-FA, or T-50, is behind schedule and likely won’t see widespread production until 2024 or later. The Chinese J-20 and J-31 are still very much in the prototype phase and are both likely years away. Of course, there is always the Iranian F-313…
The general theme of “5th generation” aircraft thus far seems to be one of “over-promise” and “under-deliver”. We can’t really blame the designers or engineers behind these issues. These aircraft were conceived at the tail end of the Cold War, when defence budgets were limitless and the pressure was on to develop new technologies as a way to “one up” the enemy. Needless to say, times have changed. Defence budgets have been slashed, and the enemy is no longer an established “superpower”. Threats are smaller, but much more unpredictable. The actions of governments in Syria, Iran, and North Korea have the world on edge. A global “hotspot” like Mali, can pop up out of nowhere, seemingly overnight.
Isn’t it time to start considering a 6th generation fighter for “new world” needs?
It’s already being done. The U.S. Navy has already starting requesting concepts for a “Sixth Generation” fighter under to be known as the F/A-XX. Although ostensibly it is to be a replacement for the Super Hornet, one could see it as a way for the U.S. Navy to hedge its bets with the F-35C.
So what will a 6th generation jet fighter look like? That’s hard to say, as there has been little more than artist’s renderings so far. Naturally, it would build upon the foundation of current 5th generation aircraft, to include stealth, thrust vectoring, powerful AESA (and better) radar, infrared tracking, and helmet mounted displays.
But what features will make new fighters truly “6th Generation”? I would suggest the following:
UCAV variants. A 6th generation fighter would share a common airframe with both piloted and unmanned versions. The UCAV version could be used for more dangerous missions, while the piloted versions act as “command” units. Ideally, the cockpit would be modular, allowing easy conversion. This would allow units with high airframe hours to be converted to UCAV status for safety reasons.
Improved engine performance. A 6th generation fighter should be able to fly faster, longer, and further than current designs. New engine designs like the ADVENT engine promise to improve on the 5th generation supercruise abilities. There is also the long-promised but so far unrealized promise of ramjets, scramjets, and the like.
Directed Energy Weapons. That’s right, “freaking laser beams“. No longer strictly the realm of science fiction, airborne Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) have seen some much promise lately. Early prototypes were so large that they took up an entire 747. Initially intended to swat down ballistic missiles, the airborne laser, or ABL looks to be simply too impractical for long range missile interception. A smaller version, the Airborne Tactical Laser, or ATL, mounted on a C-130 Hercules met with similar criticism.
Artist and designer Joe Green has shown what he believe a Super Arrow should look like. Bigger, more powerful, and stealthier than its aborted namesake, Joe’s Super Arrow looks poised to go even go beyond jets like the F-22, PAK FA, and J-20. Referring to it as a “7th Generation fighter” Joe believes that we, as Canadians, could develop and build his Super Arrow in time for the CF-18s to retire. I fear I don’t share his optimism in that regard, but see no reason why such an aircraft couldn’t be developed as a 6th generation fighter ready to see service around the year 2030 or so, especially if we partner up with Saab, Dassault, or the Eurofighter consortium. (Joe would prefer it we go it alone, but he isn’t totally against the idea.)