Even as the Pentagon is struggling to figure out a way to afford and field its fifth-generation fighter of choice, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy and the U.S. Air Force—along with industry—are looking at what comes next. This sixth-generation fighter initiative is loosely known as the “F-X program” for the USAF and the “FA-XX” for the Navy.

The F-X program looks to to finally replace the F-15 Eagle, as well as the F-22 Raptor, and the FA-XX program aims to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. This new aircraft will be as much about reusable weaponry (lasers) as it is about expendable weaponry. Development of solid-state airborne laser capability is already well underway in the white world, and has most likely experienced other application gains in the black world.

The idea is that combat aircraft can use solid-state laser systems defensively, creating a sanitized sphere of safety around the aircraft, shooting down or critically damaging incoming missiles and approaching aircraft with their laser turrets. They can also use such a system offensively, leveraging their stealth capabilities to sneak up on enemy aircraft and striking with speed-of-light accuracy.

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Even attacking targets on the ground, such as individual people, with pinpoint precision, or shooting down ballistic missiles and other targets traditionally relegated to larger and much more complex ground or sea-based weapon systems, are possibilities.

The introduction of nimble and compact lasers on the aerial battlefield will likely allow fighter-sized combat aircraft designs to cease putting a premium on maneuverability, as lasers are speed-of-light weapons. In other words, as long as the enemy can be detected and is within the laser’s range, they are at risk of being fried regardless of how hard they try to evade via hard turns and other high-g maneuvers. Countermeasures will become more about evading initial detection, staying outside an opposing aircraft’s laser’s envelope, and confusing targeting sensors than out-maneuvering the adversary. In other words, the dogfights of the future will look nothing like they do today.

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One issue pointed out by Northrop Grumman is that these lasers, along with future engines and avionics, will put out a huge amounts of heat, making thermal control a huge concern for stealthy aircraft. Infrared search and track systems, both air and ground based, are only becoming more sensitive and reliable as time goes on. As a result, future stealthy fighter aircraft will have to keep their cool in order to remain undetected over the battlefield.

One way the Pentagon and possibly some defense aerospace contractors are looking at dealing with this problem will be by using a large thermal accumulator to control the aircraft’s heat signature while using laser weaponry, although Northrop Grumman seems to be pursuing a different—albeit more shadowy—way of dealing with the problem. Flightglobal.com talked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems President Tom Vice about the issue:

“Venting the heat offboard only raises the aircraft’s visibility to heat-sealing sensors. Another option is to develop a thermal accumulator, which is a path the Air Force Research Laboratory is pursuing under the INVENT program. An electrical accumulator stores the energy onboard in the same way as a hydraulic accumulator, releasing the latent energy as necessary to generate a surge of power.

But Northrop’s sixth-generation fighter concept eschews the accumulator concept for thermal management. According to Vice, such a system imposes a limitation on the laser weapon’s magazine size or firing rate, forcing the pilot to exit combat until the accumulator is refilled with energy. Northrop is pursuing a concept instead that does not rely on accumulators or offboard venting to manage the heat, but Vice declines to elaborate on the company’s specific approach to solving the thermal management problem.”

So we know that lasers will be a significant part of a sixth-generation fighter capabilities, but what else do Northrop Grumman’s renderings tell us? First off, it looks like they want to scale down their Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) design, with the image at the top of this post likely having a very close resemblance to the yet-to-be-disclosed LRS-B design.

No matter what, clearly Northrop Grumman thinks the tailless concept is the way forward for future fighter aircraft. Specifically the flying wing, “cranked kite” design that the company has been developing for the last decade and a half, and has flown publicly on the X-47B, seems to be further extrapolated in the renderings above.

This concept also makes it clear that enhanced range and payload will be key factors in a sixth-generation fighter design. Sadly, this was not realized with the F-35, which retained more of a traditional jet fighter configuration and design concept. In the high-end wars of the future, the F-35 and its vulnerable tanker support aircraft will likely be pushed back far outside a capable enemy’s anti-access/area denial defenses.

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This means other ways of initially breaking down an enemy’s defenses, including their integrated air defense network (IADS), will be needed. This will have to be left to expensive and limited supplies of standoff weaponry as well as low observable aircraft with long-endurance capabilities. This is why procuring the Long Range Strike Bomber and keeping the B-2 Spirit viable is so important.

For a sixth-generation fighter like the ones depicted by Northrop Grumman, top-end speed and maneuverability may be sacrificed to some degree—at least, if the crank-kite flying wing design is used—in order achieve many other enhanced capabilities at an affordable cost. For instance, packing a laser system and long-range into a 9G tailless, supersonic fighter design may not only be prohibitively expensive, but also wasteful. By giving up maneuverability and high top-speed performance for enhanced stealth and greater fuel and weapons capacity, while relying on lasers instead of maneuverability for self defense, little is lost while much is gained.

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Northrop Grumman is not the only big defense aerospace prime contractor that has floated sixth-generation fighter renderings before. Lockheed has touted a design (pictured below) that ironically looks very much like Northrop’s own YF-23 Black Widow, an aircraft that lost to Lockheed’s YF-22 Lightning during the Advanced Tactical Fighter Competition of the early 1990s.

This design is less exotic than North Grumman’s current offering, and likely puts more of an emphasis on traditional fighter attributes like speed and maneuverability. Still, this does not mean that Lockheed’s F-X or FA-XX offering will look anything like this year’s in the future, that is if these initiatives ever even come close to fruition at all.

The question is, how can the Pentagon even afford such weapon systems in the coming decades? It is almost a certainty that the F-35 purchase, at least for the Air Force and possibly the Navy, will be cut back, potentially drastically, in order to be able to buy the $100 plus million jets in any quantity at all. This will also affect unit cost in a negative way. Since the F-35 procurement plan spans multiple decades, and supposedly will continue on well into the 2030s, where will the money come from for yet another advanced fighter aircraft? Especially considering this one will be even more complex and capable than the F-35 by a large margin.

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The F-22 is a great example of this: the jet was very much a package of game-changing technologies like the sixth-generation fighter concept is supposed to be, but due to costs and competing projects, only 187 were built. Today, the F-22 force, although incredibly capable, only has about 125 combat coded jets available, and a large portion of those are down for maintenance at any given time. It is truly a pocket fleet, one that is expensive to sustain due to its small size.

Additionally, even though it is the deadliest fighter in the skies, it lacks key components that were cut do to cost cutting measures and the decision to sink funds into other programs, namely the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. How is the sixth-generation fighter going to be any different? Especially considering the F-35 will still be in production, tightening of budgets and the fact that the cost of fielding new combat aircraft is only going up, not down.

Sadly, if things continue as they are planned, the sixth-generation fighter of the future will likely be an upgraded variant of the F-35, not some clean-sheet whiz bang super-high-end aircraft design.

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In fact, I have been leery about discussing the whole “sixth-generation fighter” hype at all because it just sounds silly—almost childish, really, at this point. Not only will it likely be totally unaffordable in light of the F-35 program’s drain on future tactical air combat dollars, but by the time this aircraft would be fielded, unmanned systems will almost certainly dominate the battlefield far more than manned ones. Even some of the Navy’s top brass agrees with this sentiment.

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So, what’s going on here? Is this just one more potentially very expensive death throe of the fighter pilot culture that dominates the decision making cycle within our air forces? Or is this whole sixth-generation fighter escapade just a unofficial cover for developing the unmanned systems of the future?

Hopefully it is the latter, as it would be downright alarming if we are still playing the same manned fighter development game 20 years from now. Likely, America’s allies—and enemies, for that matter—will have already moved on.

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Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com


Rendering credits: first two images Northrop Grumman, third image via lLockheed/screencap