A sixth-generation jet fighter is a conceptualized class of fighter aircraft designed 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, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, Germany, and France.
The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) is a United States Air Force (USAF) sixth-generation air superiority initiative with the goal of fielding a “family of systems” that is to succeed the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
A crewed fighter aircraft is the centerpiece program of NGAD and has been referred to as the Penetrating Counter-Air (PCA) and is to be supported by uncrewed collaborative combat aircraft (CCA), or loyal wingman platforms, through manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).
The Next-Generation Air Dominance platform will control drones from the cockpit called Combat Collaborative Aircraft to test enemy air defenses, conduct forward surveillance, and even fire weapons when directed by a human.
Air Force innovators have long been preparing the F-22 to handle drone control. However, it is reasonable to assume that the 6th-gen aircraft will boast a new generation of computing and command systems, allowing it to effectively manage multiple drones simultaneously. Consequently, the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform is poised to outperform the F-22 in areas such as drone control, manned-unmanned teaming, and autonomous operations.
Beyond leading or flying in a collective formation, the NGAD aircraft may achieve revolutionary levels of stealth and speed. How could it possibly surpass the F-22 in stealthiness? If the airborne NGAD resembles the available industry 6th-gen renderings, it may adopt a blended wing body without any vertical tails. Such a design could potentially be more stealthy than an F-22, as it lacks protruding structures, contours, or sharp edges that might trigger a clear return signal on enemy radar. With a horizontal, blended wing-body fuselage akin to a bomber, it could fly with a reduced radar signature compared to an F-22.
As for coatings and radar-absorbent materials, there is limited information available about the NGAD. However, it’s plausible to assume that new composites and blended materials might be incorporated into a lighter and faster 6th-generation aircraft. This potential development could significantly impact the thrust-to-weight ratio, as the F-22 currently holds the highest thrust-to-weight ratio among fighter jets worldwide. If a 6th-generation platform integrated propulsion, vectoring, and engine power similar to or exceeding that of the F-22 into a much lighter fuselage, it could theoretically engineer a stealth fighter with a thrust-to-weight ratio far superior to that of an F-22.
In terms of speed, the F-22 is hailed as one of the fastest and most dominant air platforms globally, capable of reaching speeds of Mach 2.35 and maintaining “supercruise,” enabling extended Mach speeds without the need for afterburners. While primarily perceived as an air-to-air fighter, the F-22 also excels in ground-attack close-air support. It leverages advanced sensors and networking to act as an “aerial quarterback,” as affirmed by Air Force pilots and weapons developers. Although it may not possess the same sensing and computing capabilities as an F-35, the aircraft is increasingly adept at exchanging two-way information with both F-35s and various 4th-generation aircraft.
Concerning computing capabilities, it is anticipated that the NGAD will be engineered with a new generation of AI-enabled computing, data analysis, and high-speed processing. While an F-22 can certainly receive ongoing computer upgrades to enhance its unmanned or autonomous capabilities, a brand-new platform offers the opportunity to reimagine functionality, sensing, and AI-driven flight. For instance, the Air Force is currently experimenting with an AI-capable robotic co-pilot called ArtUu, capable of real-time connection and sharing of targeting data with a human pilot. This approach aims to optimize both high-speed, AI-enabled computing and the unique cognitive faculties and capacities of humans in a blended combination. A freshly designed 6th-generation aircraft is likely to achieve this with a smaller hardware footprint.
One of the most enigmatic yet potentially impactful distinctions between the F-22 and the 6th-Gen aircraft lies in the realm of weaponry. While the F-22 has significantly augmented its weapons capacity through software upgrades like 3.2b, there has been a concerted effort across the fleet to vastly enhance the performance attributes of the AIM-9X and AIM-120D. These F-22-launched weapons have undergone improvements in range, survivability, lethality, and precision targeting through software and open architecture computing upgrades. However, being designed as an entirely new platform, a 6th-generation NGAD aircraft is likely to possess the capacity to handle weapons that are not yet in existence. The technical infrastructure of the NGAD will likely be backward compatible, allowing it to deploy existing weapons while simultaneously accommodating entirely new ones as they emerge.
Lasers are expected to play a significant role as well, as the NGAD will likely be engineered with an enhanced capability to utilize mobile sources of electrical power. A 6th-generation aircraft, however, might be constructed with vastly improved abilities to operate with large quantities of electrical power in much smaller form factors. This would enable a fighter jet to fly and operate with high-power, high-density, scalable laser weapons at an unprecedented level far surpassing the capabilities of current 5th-generation aircraft.