The Navy and Air Force variants of a 6th-generation Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) stealth fighter are rapidly coming to life, and not a moment too soon as the current threat environment is such that a faster, stealthier, and far more lethal fighter jet could soon be deemed critical.
It is important to recognize that, through ongoing software upgrades, the F-35 may well remain dominant into the 2070s and beyond, as many of the most substantial technological leaps forward will likely be in the areas of computing, AI, mission systems, weapons, and command and control.
These areas can be modernized in paradigm-changing ways without having to reconfigure the main fuselage or fundamental architecture of the plane itself.
The F-35 Can Fly Alongside NGAD
In short, the F-35 seems to have the potential to stay in front of threats for decades. However, this does not mean there is not an urgent need for a U.S. Navy and Air Force 6th-generation fighter for several key reasons. The F-35 is a multirole fighter with speed, maneuverability, breakthrough computing, and a drone-like 360-degree surveillance capability. Attributes that make it an ideal “partner” or supplement to an ultra high-speed, ultra-stealthy 6th-gen stealth fighter.
A sixth-generation craft will be more of an F-22 replacement in terms of air supremacy and speed, yet many of its breakthroughs will come in the realm of “manned-unmanned” teaming and command and control. New datalinks, command and control technology, and AI-enabled data analysis will enable a 6th-generation “family of systems” wherein a single manned platform simultaneously operates five or six drones.
The concept for a 6th-generation fighter or NGAD , as explained by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, is described as one of the services’ key “operational imperatives” wherein a family of systems will perform a wide range of missions.
There are far too many of those most needed attributes for a 6th-generation fighter to cite, however, AI-enabled targeting data analysis, sensor range, and fidelity will need to be paradigm-changing. A breakthrough high-speed, ultra stealthy 6th-generation aircraft will massively achieve overmatch if it has an F-35-like long-range and high fidelity targeting sensors to see and destroy enemy targets from standoff ranges before it is seen itself. An ability to network with ground command centers, drones, other fighter jets, ground vehicles, Navy ships, and even satellites will enable the platform to gather and process time-sensitive data needed to move in and attack and destroy an enemy.
While speed and maneuverability will of course be critical, long-range sensors, networking, high-speed, AI-enabled computing, and weapons guidance will likely be what separates the 6th-generation fighter from competitors.
The urgent need for a 6th-generation aircraft like NGAD is largely driven by the current threat circumstances, which include the emergence of the Chinese J-20 and J-31 and Russian Su-57. While there is no clear indication that these platforms are in fact superior to a U.S. Air Force F-22 and F-35, their existence certainly drives an additional need to stay in front of great power rivals. China and Russia already suffer from a significant numbers deficit when it comes to 5th-generation aircraft, yet the attributes and specific performance parameters of Russian and Chinese may be somewhat of a mystery. All the more reason why breakthrough or “disruptive” technologies need to be leveraged.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive 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.