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Video Above: Maj. Gen. Pringle on Manned-Unmanned Teaming

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

The Navy plans to arm its carriers with more than 1,000 5th and 6th generation airplanes to pursue sustained air superiority, achieve massive sea-based power projection and surge its maritime warfare posture decades into the future.

The Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan 2022 specifically calls for 1,300 “flexible, long-range and lethal carrier-based aircraft, consisting of a mix of 5th Generation manned aircraft and Next Generation Air Dominance Family of Systems.”

This language, articulated in the text of CNO Adm. Michael Gilday’s plan, raises a number of pressing and highly significant questions and introduces several interesting possibilities. For example, a close reading of the text would clearly seem to suggest that 6th-generation stealth fighter aircraft may well launch from carriers much like the F-35C, something which clearly moves the now-airborne aircraft way beyond merely functioning as a next-generation, land-launched F-22. This would make sense, particularly in the context of Gilday’s reference to a “family” of NGAD systems, meaning 6th-Generation aircraft will likely emerge in the form of several variants to include a carrier-launched capability.

An F35C is directed on the flight deck of the USS Abraham – Via Twitter

An F35C is directed on the flight deck of the USS Abraham – Via Twitter

Secondly, Gilday’s text contrasts “manned” F-35 jets with a “family” of NGAD systems as if to indicate that there will be “unmanned” variants in a group of networked 6th-generation platforms. This makes sense in several respects, meaning that a 6th generation family of aircraft will likely include “drone” variants built to fly alongside manned aircraft. 

This concept makes particular sense given the rapid progress in the realm of autonomy, AI-enabled flight and manned-unmanned teaming. Multiple 5th and 6th-generation aircraft will increasingly be able to operate groups of drones from the cockpit without needing to send data through a ground control station. This capability, now already successfully tested through Air Force programs such as Valkyrie and Skyborg, will likely continue to evolve quickly to the point where manned fighters can operate small groups of semi-autonomous drones from the air, reducing latency and massively expanding operational scope.

The other interesting possibility suggested by Gilday’s language is that perhaps carriers will not only launch 6th-generation manned fighters but also launch 6th-generation drones. This is entirely feasible as the Navy has spent many years developing, testing and refining the technology needed to launch and land drones from the deck of a carrier. This process, Navy developers have said over the course of many years, is extremely complex as autonomous systems must account for a number of complex, interwoven variables such as wind speed, sea state, air turbulence and glide slope dynamics. 

The Navy’s ability to do this goes back many years to the days of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B demonstrator drone which successfully took off and landed from a carrier. Following this, the Navy developed and is now producing a carrier-launched unmanned refueler called the MQ-25 Stingray which operates with an ability to autonomously launch from a carrier deck.

Given that this technology has evolved to its current state, it makes sense that 6th-generation unmanned aircraft and perhaps even drone variants will autonomously take-off, operate and land on carrier decks.

F-35 Lightning II Amphibious Assault Ship

F-35 Lightning II Amphibious Assault Ship

It is also quite likely that 6th-generation aircraft will include an “optionally-manned” capability, meaning it can both operate with a human pilot and also perform missions autonomously with AI-enabled algorithms controlling the aircraft. This concept is not new at all, meaning unmanned fighter jets have been tested and in development for many years now. For instance, more than five years ago, former Navy Secretary Ray Maybus said the F-35 may be the last manned-fighter. While Maybus’ comment suggests that unmanned combat air war is fast developing and expected to figure prominently in the future, there will likely be a need for those faculties and variables unique to human cognition to remain fundamental to air combat. There are certainly many attributes particular to human decision-making which cannot be replicated by mathematically-oriented algorithms and machines.

6th-Generation Now Airborne

A stealthy, supersonic, semi-autonomous 6th-gen fighter maneuvers undetected through heavily armed enemy air space, evades radar detection to …. jam the adversaries command and control systems with EW weapons, gather, analyze and transmit targeting data across huge areas of terrain in milliseconds using AI-empowered computing, launch and operate groups of nearby minidrones, fire air-launched hypersonic missiles and then... incinerate enemy aircraft with fighter-jet fired precision laser weapons … all while flying too quickly and stealthily to be targeted.

Taking this hypothetical mission yet another step farther, what if the 6th-Gen fighter not only performed many of its missions with complete autonomy but also operated with a kind of self-regenerating coating or even composite armor which used synthetic biology to essentially regenerate and restore external structures lost or damaged by enemy fire?

In 2030, all this could be reality.

The alignment and collective execution of these now-in-development technical attributes rests almost entirely on the continued pace of Pentagon and industry innovation now striving to prepare for and anticipate the unknown, if not even somewhat mysterious, future warfare environment. Making these things happen, and integrating them to one another such that they complement one another in a coordinated fashion, requires visionary thinking, some amount of guessing and a delicate blending of art and science combining the best conceptual theorizing with early evidence of scientific promise.

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This complex, yet highly sought after mixture of sensibilities and science, it could easily be said, captures the intent of many Pentagon efforts to prepare for warfare decades from now. It is the reason entities like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s, Lockheed’s Skunk works Works or Raytheon’s lesser- known Advanced Concepts and Technology (ACT} ) units exist… to explore the realm of the seemingly impossible and innovate yet-to-be-envisioned warfare technologies.

While many of these kinds of units have been well known and operational for decades, Raytheon’s ACT has just fully emerged within the last three to five years. Of course innovation, basic research, wargaming and future warfare preparations have always been on the radar at places like Raytheon, ACT came into existence as part of an effort to harness, leverage, optimize and “pool” the best and most promising thinking. Much like DARPA or Skunk Works, ACTs scope is varied and perhaps too broad to specify, yet there are some emerging areas now showing particular promise, such as those cited in the aforementioned 6th Gen fighter hypothetical scenario.

6th-Generation Technologies 

While next to nothing is known publicly about the now airborne Air Force sixth-generation aircraft, it would by no means be considered a stretch to expect that it is being built to be faster and far more maneuverable than any stealth fighter in existence.

  • Does it have superior speed, Super Cruise-like propulsion technology, and dogfighting prowess when compared to the F-22 stealth fighter jet?
  • Does it bring new generations of computing speed and artificial intelligence (AI)-informed analysis to air combat?

There are well-known technical parameters to achieve speed and dogfighting capabilities, including improved thrust-to-weight ratios, high-speed vectoring, engine propulsion technologies and lightweight composite airframes. Yet there is another way to optimize maneuverability and speed potential through streamlined “multi-function hardware,” a concept now being explored in depth by Raytheon.

Multi-Function Hardware

Developers describe a “multi-function hardware” type of approach as a way to integrate a variety of otherwise disparate functions into a single operational system. The idea is to reduce a warplane’s size, weight, and power consumption while, perhaps most significantly, exponentially improve information processing.

For instance, Jason “Tex” Clark, Director for Advanced Mission Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, promoted this concept during a Raytheon event last year. “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 [radio frequencies] this idea of multifunction technology and software-defined technologies will support evolving mission needs,” said Clark.

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 company engineers 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,” Tomek Rys, Director for Communications & Airspace Management Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said at a special Raytheon sixth-generation fighter focused webinar.

Integrating, organizing and analyzing data through new applications of computer processing technology is now being worked on by Raytheon through internal research and development. These advances can form the basis of a wide range of now-in-development next-generation stealth technologies, including new radar-evading configurations, coating materials and advanced thermal-signature reduction.

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 sixth-generation 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,” Rys said.

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

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization