Seventh-Generation Stealth Fighter – Thinking About the Future of the U.S. Air Force: The U.S. Air Force’s highly secret sixth-generation stealth fighter jet is already airborne, a development with the promise to usher in a new era in air supremacy.
Most of the details of the sixth-generation demonstrator aircraft remain elusive for security reasons, but Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and other service leaders have been clear in characterizing it as a “family of systems.” Manned jets will control small groups, even swarms, of mini-drones.
The Air Force calls some of these unmanned systems Collaborative Combat Aircraft, and they are essentially drones that will fly in coordination with a manned, stealthy, next-generation plane in support of high-risk combat missions.
The sixth-generation fighter-jet initiative, called Next Generation Air Dominance, is often envisioned as a faster, stealthier F-22. But the collection of technologies woven into a sixth-generation aircraft will be quite significant. They will likely include things like conformal sensors, blended antennas, a new level of AI-enabled sensing and computing, manned-unmanned teaming, and smart skins with sensors woven into the fuselage. They will probably also carry a new generation of stealth properties such as coating materials, thermal heat signature management, and a new external configuration.
Industry renderings of a sixth-generation aircraft, one of which may represent the demonstrator chosen, do indeed reveal a sleek, advanced, and stealthy new body type. The images render a fuselage with no vertical structures, giving it a B-2-like, ultra-stealthy horizontal blended wing and body.
What Could Be Coming?
With all of these innovations informing sixth-generation aircraft, it might be quite difficult to imagine what a seventh-generation stealth fighter could look like. Indeed, will there even be such a thing? Are there yet-to-be-discovered technologies able to redefine air combat?
If history is any guide, the answer is probably yes. The first thought that comes to mind is that a seventh-generation stealth fighter will be hypersonic. Imagine a stealth fighter jet flying at more than five times the speed of sound. Could such an aircraft be manned?
At the moment, manned hypersonic flight seems beyond the realm of the possible given the intense conditions such as the heat generated at those speeds. However, perhaps cooling technology or protective gear will emerge to allow humans to handle hypersonic speeds. If not, a seventh-generation attack stealth fighter might be fully unmanned.
After all, very high levels of autonomy already exist. Unmanned fighter jets can not only fully maneuver without needing human intervention, but they have also outperformed manned jets in some simulated dogfights. Nevertheless, there are doubtless many elements of human cognition, emotion, intuition, and other more subjective variables that mathematically derived computer algorithms cannot replicate.
What Would It Look Like?
What would seventh-generation stealth look like? Perhaps further miniaturization of sensors, computers, and weapons enable a much smaller and therefore stealthier platform to achieve the same or greater level of lethality. It might not be too far-fetched to envision a stealth fighter able to operate beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and conduct combat and surveillance operations in space. Should it fly at hypersonic speeds, it seems conceivable that a seventh-generation aircraft could travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and back on a single tank of fuel.
Might seventh-generation stealth fighters operate as air and space attack platforms able to destroy enemy fighters, and even satellites or missiles such as ICBMs, traveling beyond the earth’s atmosphere?
A seventh-generation stealth fighter would of course control small fleets of drones and be armed with a new arsenal of extremely precise, ultra-long-range air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. A seventh-generation stealth aircraft could be stealthy and fast enough to incinerate enemy ICBMs with jet-fired laser weapons.
This especially seems realistic, given that jet-fired lasers are fast-progressing with Air Force weapons developers.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – 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.