A sixth-generation jet fighter is a conceptualized class of fighter aircraft design more advanced than the fifth-generation jet fighter that is currently in development. Several countries have announced the development of a sixth-generation aircraft program, including the United States, China, United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Germany, and France.
Countries developing Sixth-generation jet fighters must avoid the following mistakes made with the Fifth-generation jet fighter
The 5th generation of jet fighters seemed so focused on stealth and BVR (beyond visual range) combat, that they are willing to sacrifice WVR (within visual range) performance and affordability. This is similar to the 3rd generation fighters, where powerful engines and guided missiles were thought to render the concept of dogfighting obsolete. The Vietnam air war proved this to be wrong, and 4th generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16 were designed to be just as good up close as far away.
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6th generation fighters should be stealthy, but not have to rely on their stealth exclusively. They should be just as deadly in a tight dogfight as they are from hundreds of kilometers away.
They should be multi-role aircraft, able to take out enemy air cover as easily as enemy ground targets.
They should be deployable enough to fly to an emerging “hot spot” at a moment’s notice.
Most importantly, a 6th generation fighter should be affordable. There is little point in having a cutting-edge uber-fighter if it is too expensive to build, too expensive to fly, or so overly complicated that it never gets out of development.
For several decades airpower theorists have forecast a transition to crewless combat jets which won’t have to bear the added weight and risk to life and limb necessitated by a human pilot. Sixth Generation should have optionally-manned aircraft that can fly with or without a pilot on board. Optional-manning may help Airforce in deploying aircraft on high-risk missions without risking pilots’ lives.
New technology is great, but not every system has to be a radical quantum leap ahead of previous systems. Off-the-shelf technology should be used whenever possible, and thought should be given to future maintenance and upgrade needs.
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The following Fifth-generation jet fighter technologies should be used in a Sixth-generation jet fighter with modification
The various Sixth-Generation concepts mostly feature many of the same technologies.
Two critical characteristics of Fifth-Generation fighters will remain centrally important to the Sixth: stealthy airframes and long-range missiles.
Thus, low radar cross-sections and radar-absorbent materials will be necessary, but not sufficient, a feature of sixth-generation fighters. Some theorists argue that stealthy airframes may eventually be rendered obsolete by advanced sensor technology—and stealthy airframes can’t be upgraded as easily as avionics and weapons. Therefore, jamming, electronic warfare, and infrared obscuring defenses will also rise in importance.
Beyond-visual-range missiles will remain a key technology in Sixth-generation jet fighter
The F-35 has pioneered sophisticated Helmet Mounted Displays that can see ‘through’ the airframe for superior situational awareness, display key instrument data, and target missiles via a Helmet Mounted Sight (although that last technology is decades old). Though these helmets currently have significant teething issues, they will likely become a standard feature in future Sixth-generation jet fighters, possibly supplanting cockpit instrument panels. Voice-activated command interfaces may also ease the hefty task-load expected of fighter pilots.
One of the F-35’s key innovations is its ability to soak up sensor data and share it via datalinks to friendly forces, creating a composite ‘picture.’ This could allow a stealth aircraft to ride point and ferret out adversaries, while friendly forces maneuver into advantageous positions and sling missiles from further back without even turning on their radars. Because this tactic promises to be such a force multiplier, fused sensors and cooperative engagement will become a standard feature of sixth-generation jets—and the fusion will likely be deepened by integrating satellite and even drones deployed alongside jet fighters.
Sixth-generation fighter programs remain strictly conceptual today, especially given the enormous expenses and effort devoted to working out the kinks in the Fifth-Generation.
At the earliest, sixth-generation fighters may crop up in the 2030s or 2040s—by which time concepts in air warfare will likely have evolved yet again.