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(Washington D.C.) A massive and still somewhat unknown technology breakthrough may be upon us, by virtue of the apparent Air Force decision to not only fast-track a new 6th-Gen platform, but actually fly it.
While of course technical details and specifics regarding the kinds of 6th-Gen platforms which have been in development are close held or not public for security reasons, that fact that one is here now seems to suggest that sufficient technological breakthroughs have occurred to inspire a decision to actually “build and fly” a new stealth fighter jet platform.
Developers have for many years now been immersed in technological exploration, prototyping and conceptual work related to 6th-Gen fighter technology, looking at things like building stealthier airframes, new applications of AI, miniaturized long-range sensors, targeting technology and drones operating with ever-increasing levels of autonomy. Does the fact that a 6th-Gen aircraft has already flown suggest that, perhaps, some of the most essential ingredients of long-term transformational technologies are, in effect, already here?
The question is one which naturally continues to command a lot of attention from Pentagon and defense industry innovators working on breakthrough systems for 6th-Gen aircraft in areas of weapons development, computer processing, propulsion, fuel efficiency and of course stealth configurations.
Raytheon Intelligence & Space
Raytheon Intelligence & Space is one of a group of industry developers which partners with the military services to explore the realm of the possible when it comes to integrating new capabilities into 6th-Gen platforms.
“We provide processors for fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft, and therefore we are uniquely positioned to understand the needs for sixth generation aircraft,” Tomek Rys, Director for Communications & Airspace Management Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said at a special Raytheon 6th-Gen focused webinar.
One concept in particular being worked on by Raytheon is described as a “multifunction hardware” type of approach which seeks to integrate a variety of otherwise disparate functions into a single operational system. The idea to reduce size, weight and power consumption while, perhaps most significantly, exponentially improve information processing.
“I really believe we're moving into an era that incorporates the idea of multifunction hardware. And what do I mean by that? Nowadays, aircraft, [you] have a radar, [you] have a radio or constantly, [you] have a need on the system. I believe as we move into this next generation of tactical platforms, we'll be moving into the world of multifunction RF...so this idea of multifunction technology and software defined technologies will support evolving mission needs,” Jason “Tex” Clark, Director for Advanced Mission Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said during the Raytheon event.
Having more operational functions performed by a single system not only reduces the hardware footprint but can also massively expedite the processing of information. Raytheon is now working on a new generation of onboard computer processing intended to, as Rys put it, essentially turn planes into “flying data centers.”
“Onboard computer clusters composed of high performance ruggedized processors, will effectively put a data center in the sky. These systems will leverage artificial intelligence turning data into information in real time. The end result of all this will be faster decision making,” Rys said.
Integrating, organizing and analyzing data through new applications of computer processing technology, now being worked on by Raytheon through internal research and development, can form the basis of a wide range of now-in-development next-gen stealth technologies, including new radar-evading configurations, coating materials and advanced thermal-signature reduction.
Maybe some of these things are here now, given the pace of technological innovation? New long-range, high-speed, course correcting or even self-guiding weapons, combined with new stealth attributes or AI enabled sensors could indeed help a U.S.6th-Gen platform achieve overmatch for decades to come, Navy and Air Force developers have for quite some time been pushing the boundaries of the “art-of-the-possible” to the maximum extent, so perhaps certain major breakthrough have happened?
Would not seem unlikely given the extent to which digital engineering, weapons guidance technology, autonomy and AI-enabled integrated systems and networking have been progressing in recent years.
The challenge of trying to discern the optimal time to actually build a new airframe, depending upon the relative operational maturity of promising new systems, is something which has been explored for many years, as evidenced by a Naval Postgraduate School essay from 2016 called “The 6th-Generation Quandry.”
The 6th-Generation Quandry
The essay poses the question as to whether it might be equally if not more effective to postpone formal 6th-generation development until truly breakthrough advances emerge, while pursuing advanced variants of current, yet upgradable platforms in the interim.
Could this question, anticipated years ago, have yielded answers to a degree such that the Air Force did indeed go ahead and fast-track a new platform? It does appear that way.
The 2016 paper, from the Naval Postgraduate School Acquisition Research Program, cites a handful of “at-the-time” cutting edge developmental items showing significant long-term promise.
The paper cites “new models of the F-35 optimized for air combat,” the emerging B-21, drone-launching C-130 “mother ships” and “weapons truck arsenal planes” are positioned to optimize current technological progress.
However, none of these kinds of technology are disappearing by any estimation, given the long-term plans in place for promising F-35 modernization.
Given that so many key elements of modernization can be achieved through mission systems, avionics, AI-enabled targeting and surveillance and of course weapons guidance, Pentagon and Lockheed developers recognize that the F-35 can in future decades achieve new breakthrough levels of performance with software upgrades and other kinds of technological adaptations.
This may be why many envision an integrated connectivity between the F-35 and 6th-Gen fighters as they potentially fly together into the 2080s.
AI & High-Speed Computer Processing
All of this pertains to yet another dimension of 6th-Gen technology which is an all but certainty … new applications of AI and high-speed computer processing, something which promises to reshape existing paradigms for air combat when it comes to targeting, dogfighting and sensor integration.
There is widespread consensus that applications of AI appear to provide the framework for the most defining expected technological progress.
In fact, a 2017 paper from a 16-nation NATO conglomerate of analysts, called the Joint Air Power Competence Center, raises questions about when, and how, AI may outpace the human ability to keep up.
The essay, titled “Air Warfare Communication in a Networked Environment,” quotes former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper from his previous role directing the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, saying “AI is progressing beyond the human ability to interface with it.”
“So what will become critically important is creating information out of this vast amount of data. So to manage all of this data, you're gonna need performance processing that's supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Rys added.
For instance, “smart sensors” able to gather, analyze and organize vast volumes of combat information in milliseconds, using AI-fortified algorithms, are now being built into airframes themselves to combine new sensing technology without increasing an aircraft’s radar signature.
“As we look to sixth generation aircraft, the mission computers and the onboard processing infrastructure and architecture will be critical. Mission computers today use data from sensors to grade a clear picture in the battlefield and control combat and weapon systems to gain air dominance. The computer processing power for 6th-Gen aircraft will reach levels well beyond what is available on current platforms,” Rys said.
Interestingly, multifunctional hardware may mean that some new high-speed smart sensors may be applied in various stealthy configurations by being woven into a fuselage. The absence of an external antenna, pod or structured array of some kind removes otherwise more radar-detectable structures from an airframe.
“Smart sensors and smart antenna arrays with adaptive properties would be embedded into the structure of an aircraft,” an essay from Jain University’s International Institute for Aerospace Engineering states. (“Sensor Technology and Futuristic Of Fighter Aircraft,” Jain Univ).
At the same time, while massive increases in sensor ranges, data-sharing and long-range connectivity will continue to bring as-of-yet unprecedented advantages to warfare operations, there are also challenges which emerge as combat becomes more networked. Referring to this phenomenon as creating clusters of “embedded ISR,” the Joint Air Power Competence Center paper warns of security risks and what it calls “hyper-connectivity.”
New much-longer range sensors and weapons, incorporating emerging iterations of AI, are expected to make warfare more disaggregated, and much less of a linear force-on-force type of engagement. Such a phenomenon, driven by new technology, underscores warfare reliance upon sensors and information networks.
All of this, naturally, requires the expansive "embedded ISR" discussed by the paper. Network reliant warfare is of course potentially much more effective in improving targeting and reducing sensor-to-shooter time over long distances, yet it brings a significant need to organize and optimize the vast, yet crucial, flow of information.
“Not everybody in the network needs to see and hear everything. There needs to be a hierarchy, and a backup architecture for degraded network operations,” the paper writes.
This is where AI comes in, as information can be organized, tailored and therefore streamlined properly in optimal ways to prevent overload or some kind of information “clutter.”
These types of challenges, wherein vast amounts of ISR data needs to be aggregated, analyzed and organized, are precisely what AI and high-speed processing can address. Using advanced algorithms and real-time analytics, computing power can instantly identify and disseminate key moments or items of combat relevance, thereby establishing priorities and massively quickening the human decision cycle.
AI-informed combat decisions, enabled by accelerated real-time analytics, allow human decision makers to draw upon otherwise inaccessible pools of data. Algorithms can integrate new information, instantly compare it against vast amounts of stored data, and come to informed conclusions without requiring human intervention. The ultimate value is of course not found in the sheer amount of information but the speed with which it is organized, analyzed and transmitted to human decision-makers.
“Next-generation multifunction systems will produce orders of magnitude more data than previous systems. Multifunction systems on board the platform will be combined with onboard data coming from various resources such as space vehicles satellites and wingmen both piloted and optionally piloted creating a very dense data environment,” Clark added.
Often referred to as easing the "cognitive burden," AI and iterations of man-machine interface, can perform time-consuming or otherwise impossible information-analysis tasks, all while a human functions as ultimate decision-maker in a command and control role.
While AI is quickly advancing toward being able to discern and organize seemingly subjective information, there are many decision-making abilities and problem-solving faculties regarded as unique to human cognition.
Humans & Machines
This may be part of why many futurists and weapons developers envision the optimal approach to involve a careful balanced mixture between human and machine attributes to simultaneously leverage and integrate the best of each.
“There was always a debate whether we needed to even consider dogfighting anymore, because if the system was put together appropriately, the fight would never actually go to the point which will drive you into a dogfight.
That debate has been ongoing for decades, I think it will continue. But at the end of the day, as a previous fighter guy, you're going to want to have the capability for any eventuality, and you've got to be ready to get into a dogfight if you go there,” Clark said.
The need for this kind of human-machine mixture is precisely why many envision a 6th-Gen platform as something which could be “optionally manned” or assisted by a 6th-Gen capable armed drone fighter jet intended to dogfight or engage in high-risk attacks under enemy fire.
Interestingly, while some AI-enabled autonomous jet fighter technology has performed quite well in dogfighting simulations against human pilots in air-to-air combat, many contend that human decision-making in air-combat cannot be accurately replicated and should not be replaced fully by machines.
This concept, as Raytheon explains it, may indeed inspire developers to envision a tailorable, “optionally manned” platform, wherein an done would operate in a coordinated or even at times interchangeable way with manned aircraft.
“You may need a human in the aircraft and not when the threat dictates otherwise, and use AI to relay human mission level tasking to unmanned autonomous vehicles,” Clark said.
This would make a lot of sense in a number of respects, given that the Air Force’s “loyal wingman” concept is making rapid progress and now airborne.
This means that, perhaps not unlike the F-35s Multi-Function Advanced Data Link (MADL), 6th-Gen platforms may be architected with some kind of target and data-sharing connectivity enabling expedited and highly efficient communications.
With this kind of technology, there would be massively reduced latency because video feed surveillance data would not need to go through a ground control center but would rather be instantly exchanged, organized and analyzed from the cockpit of a manned 6th-Gen fighter. This is the kind of technology very much on the radar with Raytheon innovators operating at the nexus between data processing and reducing sensor to shooter time, something of growing and crucial importance.
“Tactical platforms operating within future operational environments, because of the environment that they're operating in, and quite frankly, driven by the threat, will need very low latency capability to respond to operational mission needs,” Clark said.
Given how little is known about 6th-Gen, one might not want to refer to “loyal wingman” technology as a foregone conclusion for NGAD, yet the maturity of the technology for 5th-Gen platforms such as the F-22 and F-35 would seem to make it highly unlikely that similar technology would be used for 6th Gen.
The introduction of new forms of high-speed, AI-empowered computer processing also greatly enhances autonomy, something Raytheon innovators envision as fundamental to 6th-Gen operational functionality. The F-35B, for example, already operates with software designed to help pilots hover above and descend vertically on to the flight deck of amphibs in all kinds of maritime conditions.
“With auto-land technology, you can bring it all the way down to the back of the carrier without any pilot needing to be involved. My key prediction for the sixth generation aircraft will be their ability to land autonomously with precision in any weather or terrain conditions.
The combination of the evolution of the aircraft auto-land technology, which has been around for a while with the proliferation of more precise reference signals, is what's going to make this a reality,” Marcelo Cavalcanti, Director, International Business Development, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said during the webinar.
The F-35C operates with advanced software called “Delta Flight Path” which helps stabilize the trajectory and glide slope of a carrier landing, therefore improving the process for pilots.
“Today we are delivering precursor technology for when we land 6th-generation fighters on aircraft carriers. This technology uses high integrity differential GPS algorithms, encrypted communication signals, and inertial navigation sensors, all working together to enable jets to land on a small square on the back of an aircraft carrier with repeatable precision and accuracy,” said Conn Doherty, Senior director for Future Aircraft Systems & Technology Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
Kris Osborn is the President and Editor-in-Chief of Warrior Maven and the Defense Editor of 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.