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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) The nascent yet already airborne Air Force 6th Generation stealth fighter could evolve into two separate variants tailored to perform attack, reconnaissance and networking missions in specific theaters of operation such as Europe and the Pacific.
The Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-Gen stealth fighter, now years ahead of schedule having already flown, is expected to fly alongside the F-35 while also advancing new technical paradigms for air superiority in the realm of stealth attack, speed, AI-enabled computing, sensor sophistication, targeting and air combat maneuver.
Very little is known about the aircraft for obvious security reasons, yet there is great promise and anticipation regarding its arrival given the scope of technological advances and the Air Force need for new platforms. Digital engineering, coupled with years of conceptual work, computer simulations and early subcomponent prototyping have fostered what could be called an accelerated trajectory.
Now, given the tactical and strategic dynamics unique to both the European and Pacific theaters, there are certainly interesting reasons why separate 6th-Gen variants might prove to be a useful and relevant approach. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown agrees. When asked about the prospect of two variants at this year’s Air Force Association symposium, Brown was clear not to specify any particular plan for the emerging stealth jet, but he did not dismiss the possibility and at least seemed open to the idea, saying “we need more range in the Pacific, as the Pacific is much larger than Europe.”
While Brown and other senior Air Force leaders did not say anything regarding specific plans for the 6th Gen, apart from the general fact that it is developing well and of great importance, yet the prospect of two variants introduces some interesting variables for consideration.
The possibility raises some interesting engineering and aerodynamic questions of great relevance, as a stealth fighter might certainly need a slightly different configuration should it need to be built for extra range. Would larger fuel tanks add weight? Impact maneuverability? Perhaps to some extent, yet much is discussed in terms of the “tyranny of distance” known to characterize the vast expanse that is the Pacific, and there may be ways to extend range without adding any bulk or drag. Certainly these dynamics have been studied for years and informed current cutting edge systems such as the F-22 and F-35 engines.
Also, given the amount of ocean in the Pacific, perhaps the carrier launched MQ-25 Stingray refueler might prove significant in so far as it could take off from an otherwise inaccessible ocean location to fly up and refuel stealth fighters en route to an attack mission.
From the Korean peninsula through Japan, SouthEast Asia, the South China Sea and Australia, surveillance and attack missions, not to mention the distances between launch locations in friendly countries such as Japan or Australia, certainly might require extended range technology. This might be particularly true in high threat environments where stealth might be of great significance, meaning less stealthy tankers might have much more difficulty operating without being detected and shot down, due to newer far more advanced air defenses. Given this circumstance, a 6th Gen aircraft would seem to need to be both stealthy and engineered with new levels of range capacity. Interestingly, there are certainly instances wherein new engine technology can massively enhance fuel efficiency, so perhaps that is an area of focus.
There is also precedent for stealthy-looking conformal fuel tanks, such as those on the F-15EX or variants of the F/A-18 Super Hornet. It would seem feasible that engineers might find a way to reach new speeds, yet with greater fuel efficiency to enable longer mission scope and dwell time. For instance, what if 6th-Gen fighters needed to take off from Guam or Australian bases even further south, for attack and reconnaissance missions North of the Korean Peninsula?
The Air Force also has, for many years now, been working with GE and other industry partners on a next-generation engine program called Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology specifically intended to increase range, speed and fuel efficiency. It certainly seems feasible some of the innovations emerging from this program, which goes back to 2015, could prove impactful.
While helicopters are of course quite different from fixed wing stealth fighters, yet perhaps if only in concept the Army’s initial success with Future Vertical Lift seems to suggest that it is possible to both greatly increase speed while also doubling range beyond a legacy platform. Newer Apache variants, as well, have been engineered with more fuel efficient 701D engines and a technology called Improved Turbine Engine Program. In short, engine and propulsion technologies could be an area of focus.
How might a European variant be different? Certainly having less of a need for massive ranges might open up some design options for thrust, speed, maneuverability regarding a variant engineered for shorter missions. Eastern Europe, for example, which already has U.S. drones and F-35s, is very close to the Russian border. A European launched fighter jet attack mission could also reach parts of the Middle East, yet regardless most if not all of the European continent would be more easily accessible, should there be a need for rapid air-to-air engagement. Perhaps a European variant might more closely resemble the F-22 in terms of mission scope, with a premium placed upon aerial maneuverability, speed, thrust vectoring and air-to-air engagement? A European 6th-Gen fighter might perhaps be built with a mind to being able to defeat a 5th-Gen Russian Su-57. Whereas a Pacific variant might more closely resemble an F-35-like mission scope with advanced ISR and more multi-role capability. Naturally a 6th Gen fighter, it would seem, would aim to change the paradigm for air superiority by moving beyond both the F-22 and F-35. A Pacific variant might be engineered to defeat a Chinese J-20 or J-31.
The other, potentially less recognized element of this is simply that a 6th-Gen aircraft will be expected to complement and operate alongside the F-35. Not only does the Air Force plan to acquire more than 1,700 F-35s, but the service plans to fly the aircraft well into the 2070s. Plans for this include the often referred to Air Force’s continuous development upgrade program intended for the F-35. Many of the anticipated huge breakthrough technologies are expected to be software-reliant, computer-based or related to advanced sensing and AI, therefore enabling a jet like the F-35 to make massive leaps forward in performance without needing a new airframe configuration. Lockheed engineers built the F-35 with this in mind, meaning it was technically configured to be upgradeable for decades.
Since several of the artistic renderings of the plane show an absence of tail fins or any vertical structures, perhaps 6th-gen aircraft will be stealthier? Perhaps it will be faster and more maneuverable than its 5th-Gen predecessors? These could truly be crucial attributes given well documented rapid advances in enemy air defenses.
For example, the F-35’s sensor fusion already encompasses early iterations of AI, given that advanced computer algorithms are able to aggregate, analyze, organize and transmit clear, integrated information to pilots. New yet-to-exist sensors and weapons configurations could be accommodated by this kind of technical infrastructure.
Stealth coating can be maintained and upgraded, weapons’ lethality and guidance systems can be upgraded with software as we have seen with the both the F-35 and F-22, and engine enhancements decreasing heat emissions or increasing propulsion and maneuverability are also entirely possible as well. What this means is all the evidence points to the continued, long-term operational relevance of the F-22 and F-35. The Air Force already plans to fly the F-35 until 2070 and the F-22 all the way to 2060.
Newer networking technologies, such as radios able to connect F-22s and F-35s in stealth mode and two-way LINK 16 connectivity between the two 5th-Gen platforms means secure interoperability between 5th and 6th gen fighters is expected, a technological scenario enabling a massive expansion in tactical warfare possibilities.
Perhaps the faster-than-expected development of a 6th-Gen aircraft is in part intended to address the problems that there are insufficient numbers of F-22s in the fleet. The air-to-air dominance, continued upgrades and combat performance of the F-22 led many senior Air Force leaders to argue in favor of re-starting F-22 production. The decision at the time wound up being not to restart F-22 production, due to budget constraints. However, perhaps the thinking was to simply build a newer, better, even more capable F-22-like platform able to leverage and optimize several breakthrough technologies. Some of the artistic renderings or concepts of 6th-Gen aircraft show a dual-engine configuration as well as other visible attributes somewhat analogous to the F-22 with things like wing shape. Could a 6th-Gen fighter be an even better, newer, stealthier F-22-type aircraft? Could that at least be part of the rationale for why the F-22 production line has not been restarted in recent years?
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.