Skip to main content

Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

The Air Force B-21 Raider stealth bomber, 6th-generation fighter jets and even bombs and cruise missiles themselves will no longer solely operate as single warfare systems performing a narrowly configured combat function, but will also function as integrated “nodes” within a larger interconnected “meshed” network.

Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)

This idea is the conceptual foundation of the Air Force’s evolving Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) network engineered to enable real-time data processing and transmission at the point of collection. 

U.S. Air Force ABMS

A communications pod installed in a KC-46 Pegasus will allow the F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor to connect and instantly receive and transmit the most up-to-date information to ensure the warfighters maintain decision superiority. This concept is known as Capability Release #1 under the Advanced Battle Management System framework. The ABMS is the Department of the Air Force’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2, a DoD effort to digitally connect all elements of the U.S. military – from sensors to shooters – across all five warfighting domains: air, land, sea, space and cyberspace. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

The foundation of much of this is purely speed, meaning the faster and more efficiently time-sensitive information can get organized, analyzed and transmitted to the point of need, the “sensor-to-shooter” cycle is optimized. Senior Air Force leaders refer to this as warfare at the “speed of relevance,” connecting “any sensor” to “any shooter” across a wide envelope of operations.

Perhaps a forward operating drone sees enemy armored vehicle formations across the other side of a mountain ridge, something which presents an immediate and fast-evolving threat. While the drone may be able to process volumes of information, identify moments of relevance and the targets before then attacking the enemy formations itself under human direction. 

However, with AMBS, which is the Air Force’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control, the same drone can also send real time processed target specifics to nearby fighter jets, helicopters or even ground forces, creating a broad, multi-domain “kill web.”

Joint All Domain Command and Control

“This imperative is the Department of the Air Force component of Joint All Domain Command and Control. It is intended to better define and focus DAF (Department of the Air Force) efforts to improve how we collect, analyze, and share information and make operational decisions more effectively than our potential adversaries,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an Air Force report.

Kendall’s emphasis upon ABMS and JADC2, listed as one of seven key directives for the force, is informing the ongoing developmental maturation of several emerging programs such as the B-21 bomber and 6th-Generation Next Generation Air Dominance programs. 

Each of these, along with other key programs, is being engineered and developed with a new generation of high-speed computer processing and datalink technology to not only ensure AI-enabled algorithms can discern moment and objects of combat relevance amid vast volumes of information but also securely transmit those critical pieces of data across a forward operating force.

“What enables our ABMS investments to be successful starts with the ability to acquire targets using sensors and systems in a way that allows targeting data to be passed to an operator for engagement,” Kendall said, adding, “for the scenarios of interest it all starts with these sensors. They must be both effective against the targets of interest and survivable.”

This enables a decentralized or dispersed, yet closely networked force able to cover a wide range of operations without needing to compromise latency by sending everything through on centralized command and control hub. Operating this way can also increase survivability as well, ensuring continued network functionality in the event one “node” gets destroyed or empaired.

The already airborne Air Force 6th-generation stealth fighter will operate as part of an integrated “family-of-systems” including unmanned drones, manned jets and a new generation of networking technologies, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall explained.

Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)

“NGAD must be more than just the next crewed fighter jet. It’s a program that will include a crewed platform teamed with much less expensive autonomous un-crewed combat aircraft, employing a distributed, tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment operating as a team or formation,” he said in an Air Force report.

Kendall described this concept in terms of defining a “system-of-systems” concept for the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform. Certainly the Air Force has shown that advanced AI-enabled computer algorithms are capable of processing information in milliseconds, making decisions and performing quite well in dog-fights, at times prevailing over human pilots. However, there are certain more subjective variables best addressed by human faculties, such as emotion, intuition and an ability assess a variety of factors in relation to one another.

At the same time, procedural functions such as data processing, an ability to find moments of relevance among hours of raw incoming information as well as computational assessments and certain kinds of problem solving can all be done in milliseconds by a computer. 

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Therefore, the optimal approach, many Air Force developers seem to emphasize, it to optimize the best of both manned and unmanned systems operating in close coordination with one another in a networked capacity. This will allow the operation to benefit from the best of each. Perhaps this is why the Air Force has had some success flying manned jets with an unmanned, AI-capable co-pilot.

This kind of synergy seems to encompass much of Kendall’s focus for the 6th-generation platform as it can blend the unparalleled attributes of both human pilots as well as drones. Part of the equation, Kendall also expressed, is the added benefit of cost savings because unmanned systems do not need to be built with a comparable measure of protections.

B-21 U.S. Air Force Rendering

B-21 U.S. Air Force Rendering

“We’re looking for systems that cost nominally on the order of at least half as much as the manned systems that we're talking about for both NGAD and for B-21” while adding capability, he said. “

The NGAD platform is expected to incorporate a new generation of stealth fighter jet properties to include new dimensions of speed, maneuverability, stealth properties, sensing and AI-enabled information processing.

The Air Force has already make breakthrough progress with an ability to operate a “loyal wingman” drone alongside a manned fighter jet. This greatly reduces latency by obviating the need to send video feeds and data through a ground control station and enables manned crews to operate the sensor payload and flight path of a nearby unmanned system.

B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber

As the Air Force prepares to launch its first flight of the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, service Secretary Frank Kendall said the new platform will incorporate cutting edge levels of manned-unmanned teaming.

Kendall’s plan for the B-21, as outlined in his discussion of seven key Air Force directives or imperatives, includes evolving the platform into a family of systems likely to include manned-crews along with drones and even unmanned flight of the bomber itself.

There are both substantial tactical, survivability and also cost reasons why integrating the B-21 with drones makes sense, Kendall explained.

“This initiative, similar to NGAD, identifies all of the components of the B-21 family of systems, including the potential use of more affordable un-crewed autonomous combat aircraft,” Kendall said according to an Air Force report.

While there is of course no substitute for the unique decision-making attributes of human cognition deemed critical to real-time dynamic adjustments amid a host of fast evolving air warfare variable, there are also unprecedented advantages to using drones in close coordination with the bomber.

Often referred to as the “loyal wingman” phenomenon, the concept of networking manned and unmanned systems in combat brings targeting advantages such as an ability to send drones forward into enemy fire without placing humans at risk. For instance, while being directed from the cockpit of a manned B-21, forward operating, yet stealthy drones could test enemy air defenses. 

However, the B-21 itself, manned or potentially unmanned, might be the optimal platform to test and elude enemy air defenses because it incorporates a new generation of stealth technology. Should a small drone operating forward be shot down by an enemy, no humans would be lost but an adversary would know that attacking forces were in the air. 

The entire concept of the B-21’s broadband stealth is aimed at operating with an ability to elude both lower-frequency “surveillance” radar able to discern if an aircraft is “there,” as well as high frequency “engagement” radar able to actually develop a target track and fire upon an aircraft. The B-21 is engineered to appear like a “bird” to enemy radar and prevent an adversary from knowing the aircraft is even there.

Armed drones could also be directed to fire upon and “jam” enemy air defenses with EW or even drop weapons when directed by a manned B-21 operating in the role of command and control.

Unmanned systems could, however, incorporate what he called “attributable,” lower cost mission systems.

“They (drones and unmanned systems) could deliver a range of sensors, other mission payloads, and weapons, or other mission equipment and they can also be attributable or even sacrificed if doing so conferred a major operational advantage – something we would never do with a crewed platform,” Kendall said. “The technologies are there now to introduce un-crewed platforms in this system-of-systems context, but the most cost effective approach and the operational concepts for this complement to crewed global strike capabilities have to be analyzed and defined.”

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President