(Washington, D.C.) The Air Force’s now airborne 6th Gen aircraft may indeed incorporate several unprecedented technological breakthroughs in the areas of speed, stealth, maneuverability, weapons and AI-enabled sensing, some of which may surpass the limits of current F-35 performance.
While early in development and as of yet unproven, program acceleration, rapid progress and high-enthusiasm for the Air Force’s 6th-Gen Next Generation Air Dominance platform may all be appropriate.
However, there are several variables often overlooked when it comes to the argument that the anticipated value-added of a 6th-Gen aircraft suggests or even justifies a massive reduction in planned F-35s.
The Impact of F-35s and F-22s
Should F-35s be reduced as part of the accelerated effort to fast-track large numbers of 6th Gen aircraft to war? No. They are intended to complement one another and may indeed be distinct aircraft with slightly different mission sets and technical characteristics.
While very little is known about the configuration, performance parameters or mission profile for the new 6th-Gen aircraft, there has all along been evidence that plans for the jet more fully aligned with thinking of it as a replacement and not an F-35 substitute.
This seems even more apparent now, in light of the recent revelation that the F-22 will actually begin to sunset in 2030, several decades ahead of earlier projections as the Raptor has gone through numerous upgrades.
Could an expedited exit for the F-22 be due in large measure to the accelerated arrival of NGAD 6th-Gen? Frankly it would seem that way.
As part of this discussion, it seems significant to note that, while they are both 5th-Gen aircraft, the F-35 and F-22 are different airplanes. Therefore, engineering a next-generation F-22-like 6th-Gen aircraft in no way diminishes the need for F-35s.
One could actually argue the contrary. An F-35 is a multi-role fighter with unparalleled Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance sensor technologies, AI-capable computing and a perpetual ability to adapt, change and enhance performance through software upgrades and new mission-systems or targeting innovations.
The Pentagon has a long-term continuous modernization development program for its F-35 and plans to fly it into the 2070s and beyond. The F-35 is a multi-role fighter, and while it is capable of dogfighting and aerial maneuvers, its principle margin of superiority may reside in its sensing, computer processing and long-range-high-fidelity targeting technology.
A next-gen F-22, however, would bring a complimentary, yet slightly different capability to war in a way which might help foster a complete picture or possibility of combined 5th-and-6th Gen aerial dominance.
The F-22 is regarded as, quite possibly, the fastest, most maneuverable and best air-to-air combat platform in the world. While capable of sensing, close air support and communications networking, the F-22 is widely regarded as an air-supremacy platform.
Therefore, the picture is becoming clearer .. a next generation of 6th-Gen F-22 like capability could indeed be paradigm changing, and yet still be something which massively benefits from having a complimentary presence of multi-role F-35s.
Could enthusiasm for the fast-progressing and now airborne U.S. Air Force 6th-Gen stealth fighters have led some senior members of the Air Force to suggest a massive cut to the F-35? Seems unlikely, as the service’s plan has for many years been to fly the F-35 alongside a new 6th-Gen Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft for decades into the future. However, given how little is known about the 6th-Gen, the service’s plans for the aircraft have likely yet to take shape.
While there is little available data regarding any configuration or mission scope for the new 6th Gen aircraft, both recent comments from senior Air Force leaders and developments over the last several years seem to inculcate that they are most likely not intended to be a one-for-one replacement, meaning a 6th-Gen aircraft would not be a next-gen F-35 in any capacity.
Rather the opposite appears more likely, meaning both a 6th-Gen stealth fighter and 5th-Gen multi-role F-35 will each respectively possess attributes and characteristics the other does not have. It seems much more likely, given that the F-22 was, at least in the minds of many, prematurely truncated at 187 aircraft, a 6th Gen aircraft might introduce a breakthrough level of F-22-like air dominance.
Perhaps a 6th-Gen fighter would vector and maneuver in a manner far superior to even an F-22? Perhaps it will bring new levels of supercruise speed wherein it can thrust, accelerate, maneuver and out-run attacking enemy aircraft in unprecedented ways? At the same time, there will likely still be attributes unique to the F-35 which, given the pace technological progress and continued rapid implementation of weapons upgrades through software, may remain the case for many years.
An interesting essay from CNN cites sources saying that some senior Air Force officials during the Trump administration suggested cutting the Air Force’s 1,763 planned F-35s to 800 to save money on sustainment costs and more fully leverage the fast emerging promise of the 6th Gen aircraft.
This idea, which may have emerged earlier on in the development of the 6th-Gen platform, does not seem to represent the Air Force position at the time and certainly does not reflect what the service is thinking now. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown has said the service’s commitment to its planned fleet of F-35s remains fully intact, yet there are of course still some ongoing deliberations.
As things progress, all indications seem to point to the possibility that a 6th Gen aircraft will operate more as an F-22 replacement intended to complement and fly alongside the F-35.
It may be next to impossible to engineer a single platform that is superior and optimal in every conceivable category, a reality which further fortifies the argument that a continuously upgraded F-35 and new 6th-Gen aircraft can each bring certain superior attributes to war that the other does not have, creating an optimal combination for aerial dominance.
Both 5th and 6th Gen stealth aircraft of course extend the much sought after or even needed quality of stealth, 5th and 6th-Gen fighters will likely bring equal if not greater advantages to warfare by building upon current networking progress, meaning they will likely be engineered to quickly network, share information and operate in tandem with one another. Both will likely operate nearby drones and even unmanned ground assets or robots.
Current breakthroughs are enabling more secure two-way connectivity between F-22s and F-35s, a massive intelligence-sharing and targeting paradigm shift breaking new ground in the area of coordinated air attack. This introduces great promise for 5th-to-6th Gen coordination which will likely build upon this progress.
For instance, an ISR-capable F-35 with ultra long-range, high-fidelity sensor image resolution could draw upon its Electro-Optical Targeting System to locate an approaching fleet of enemy 5th-Gen aircraft, and then use its computerized Mission Data Files and AI-enabled sensor fusion to make rapid target identification. Bouncing incoming threat data off of a vast database to perform rapid analysis and then quickly organizing a host of otherwise disparate pools of data in relation to one another for pilots, an F-35 could find targets and transmit relevant data to a nearby 6th Gen aircraft positioned to engage and destroy the enemy 5th Gen fighters.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.