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  • Some Guy

    I’m not convinced we’ll see combat UAVs in gen6. Brass is still stuffed to the gills with fighter jocks and bomber, uh… jocks?
    Gen7, when all the UAV guys start filling out the upper commands, we’ll see some serious UAV action.
    Besides, Gen6 is going to need to be piloted, as all those F-22 guys will rapidly be running out of birds to fly by 2025. We’ve already lost, what, 2% of the entire fleet? And that’s before seeing any combat.

    • Murc

      Won’t Gen6 basically be Gen5, only more robust and reliable?

      I mean, that’s a worthwhile goal, but my understanding, which may be faulty, is that in terms of performance the F-22 is already at the bleeding edge of what can be effectively piloted by a human meatsack sitting inside the cockpit without said meatsack’s need not to pass out or turn into a smear imposing a limit.

    • mpowell

      You might be right, but planning on a manned fighter for 2030 is fucking idiotic. The tech they need to embrace is staring them right in the face. As Murc says, the F-22 is already stealthy and at the limit of what a human body can deal with. UAV offers vastly superior performance at lower cost.

      • ajay

        UAV offers vastly superior performance at lower cost.

        As far as I know, no one has yet got a UAV into service which could have a decent chance of shooting down, say, a P-51 Mustang in combat.

      • Some Guy

        Theoretically, yes, drones could operate at much harsher attitudes then a piloted craft can. But they won’t be cheaper. Modern surveillance drones cost $100-150M a pop, and that’s for an engine with wings and cameras. R&D costs to get something that can perform Air-to-air, or even dogfight, would be substantial.
        Regardless of a pilot, a next-gen fighter will need new engines, airframe, and avionics. That’s the bulk of the cost right there; adding things a human pilot would need is a marginal price increase at best. A drone needs more cost in avionics, due to the data-link needs, and any on-board autonomous technology cranks that up even further.

        • ajay

          Modern surveillance drones cost $100-150M a pop, and that’s for an engine with wings and cameras.

          That’s a bit much. I’ve seen Reaper priced at about $30m. If you’re talking about HALE/MALE types, sure.

    • Njorl

      I think the next step toward a UAV fighter would be a UAV wing of aircraft designed to fly with a human piloted lead fighter. There would be three levels of control for the UAVs. They can follow the piloted aircraft’s lead, they can be flown by a ground based controller, or they can default to programming.

      The unmanned craft could be designed to perform maneuvers which would incapacitate a pilot, and could perform missions which are more hazardous.

      The F-22 and F-35 are already designed with extensive wireless networking capacity to coordinate multi-aircraft missions. Building an unmanned, more maneuverable, more dispensible “wingman” for these aircraft seems reasonable.

  • Tuesday, surely?

    • Njorl

      It must be Belgium.

  • Tja

    “It’ll be some kind of game-changing ability. Don’t yet know what it is, but we’re out there looking at it carefully.”

    Uh-huh. They’ve found something in the desert.

  • Pete Mack

    For the next gen fighter, there are 3 objectives:
    1. Establish air superiority
    2. Hit ground targets.
    3. Avoid being shot down

    This suggests that the next fighter will be a new A- rather than an F-. That is, a stealthy A10 with high-quality air-to-air missiles.

    That is:
    * High maneuverability
    * Short takeoff
    * Low top speed
    * Significant armor
    * Relatively heavy. (More aluminum; less composites, except possibly Kevlar.)
    * Multiple weapons systems, with emphasis on “smart” munitions.
    * Low unit cost.

    There’s a reason that the A10 and F16 are so long-lived.

    • Major Kong

      The Air Force hates the A-10 and never wanted it.

      Not because it’s a bad plane, because the Air Force is run by Air-to-Air guys who only like sleek pointy-nosed fighter jets that go Mach 2 and shoot down other airplanes.

  • para

    Murc: so far 6th Gen is notionally defined (in concepts, not doctrine) as A) new engine concept and B) optionally manned. The jury is out on the rest. The “Optionally manned”-part will likely make it into any definition, work on this aspect has progressed fairly well so far. A complete UAV is still very unlikely, I think.

    • mpowell

      That’s too bad. Completely removing support for a pilot would deliver huge benefits to the design which can’t really be fully captured unless you account for them from the start.

    • ajay

      New engine concept sounds interesting. SABRE engines?

  • xana

    Good stuff on ASBM; tracking and targeting is critical.

    Skeptical of unmanned fighters. They’re dependent on datalinks and satellites.

    But if you’re fighting serious fighters, your datalinks and satellites are also probably under threat.

    Plus, all that communication is inherently unstealthy.

    What I see coming are things inbetween drones and missiles, that can operate as swarms instead of/augmenting an aircraft.

  • Matt

    The 6th gen fighter will not be a plane, it’ll just be a network of furnace facilities (conveniently located in red states) where hundreds of (non-union, natch) employees will work hard to keep the fires stoked with bales of $100 bills.

    Hell, that would probably be cheaper and more useful than the *actual* fighter. At very least, it wouldn’t be suffocating pilots in-flight…

  • Paul

    I not betting anon a UAV until they show they can do more than simply fly around in uncontested airspace.

    When they are used to attack targets in say China, defeat hacking (or just mal-ware on the operating terminals), have fully encrypted data connectivity, survive interception by first class pilots and planes and have either an effective self destruct and or guidance in case of their communication with home being disrupted, then I will believe they are the one and only future

  • Paul

    Second Question – can anyone show me a test that shows the DF-21D can even his a stationary ship in a port let alone a CV at 30 knots?

    I mean everyone loves making fun of Pentagon tests of its ABM toys as forced, scripted, not realistic but the Hysteria about Chines CV killer seems to lack even one public test on par with the worst of the Pentagon ‘rigged’ ones.

    • Chet Manly

      China has a very well developed ballistic missile program and they’ve been using DF-21 variants for 20 years. The DF-21C is supposed to be accurate to within 40 meters with a range of 1700km. They’ve been capable of reliably hitting a stationary target for years.

      That said, it’s a whole different story detecting and correctly identifying a US fleet 1,000 miles away and then keeping eyes on it all the way through the kill chain so the missile can lock onto a 300 meter carrier all while the we’re throwing up countermeasures to spoof their tracking, launching interceptors, and the carrier group is popping smoke, jamming everything they can, and hauling ass on erratic courses.

      • bph

        Yea, and the US Air Force has ballistic missiles reliably hit stationary targets over the last 50+ years, but when it comes time to do an ABM test, one-third of the failures are the launch vehicles (including the target in at least one test.)

        These “anti-carrier” systems are incredibly complicated, involving drones, satellites and multiple communication systems.

        Sunburns seem like a much simpler way to accomplish the same mission.

        • Chet Manly

          You’re right, but at any failure rate short of 100% SRBM’s are a heck of a lot cheaper than a carrier. Just to be clear, I agree the DF-21D threat is being massively overhyped.

          It’s just my totally non-expert opinion, but I think at least for the next decade or so China would have to nuke a carrier group to have any assurance that they would actually take it out of the fight.

      • ajay

        The DF-21C is supposed to be accurate to within 40 meters with a range of 1700km.

        Another point: the person who wrote that (not very good) Diplomat article is convinced that ASBMs mean not just the end of carriers, but the end of large warships of any kind. But a destroyer’s only about 20m wide. So if you can’t get a better CEP than 40 meters, you’re still going to miss about two-thirds of the time even under ideal conditions.

        • Njorl

          The missiles probably cost $5-10 million each. The destroyer costs about $2-4 billion. You could fire many missiles. As few as 12 missiles give a 99% chance of a direct hit.

    • Some Guy

      Shhhh! You’re getting in the way of a good Red Scare!

  • asdfsdf

    Always surprising how *astoundingly* bad the comments at the diplomat are. Sheesh. Flamewar and dick-measuring contest central.

    Also, I think a 6th Gen fighter will definitely be manned. Unmanned is seriously overrated for all missions that aren’t long-endurance in low-threat environments. Until AI becomes both good enough that it can reliably make life or death choices (which I don’t anticipate happening in 50 years, let alone 30), and we become so comfortable with AI that we are willing to let it make life-or-death choices, we won’t have unmanned fighter jets. You can’t control them remotely, because jamming would be pervasive and bandwidth would be saturated.

    Certainly, I expect a fair amount of AI in the cockpit as pilot aides, but anyone who thinks we will be able to replace a person with an AI is both extremely optimistic and blind to the technological challenges involved. (Besides, if we want to program an AI to make moral choices, we’ll first have to understand the moral choices we make, and why. Boy oh boy won’t a lot of people have trouble with that.)

    I do see a lot of potential for advancement in human g-tolerance. We go up to 9 g’s because that is what a human can survive with just a g-suit, where they have to hold their head up and keep their hands on the controls. But we know that humans can reliably survive in excess of 40 g’s, so as airframe performance improves I would expect further research into g-tolerance to be hugely important, and far more fruitful than AI research.

    Besides, if you think the F-22 and F-35 procurement programs were boondoggles, just wait until the generals get to define the requirements for an AI!

  • asdfsdf

    Finally read the 6th Gen Fighter article. Good god, “What technology will define the 6th generation?” What happened to designing fighters to be balanced? 4th gen, the classic example of exemplary design, incorporated new technologies but worked hard to balance them out. We need balanced planes, not planes that come from the daydreams of miltech fetishists. Define the 6th generation as the balanced set of planes that follow the 5th generation, not as the ones to use sexy but unreliable and expensive technology.

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