Fifth generation fighters have not yet become a full-fledged weapon of war, but heated discussions about the sixth generation of winged aircraft are already flaring up. It is still difficult to describe in detail the appearance of the latter, but some tendencies are already obvious.
The issue of the generations of winged machines is debatable, there is often no clear line between them. The fifth generation that has managed to set the teeth on edge is characterized, first of all, by stealth, supersonic cruising speed and super-maneuverability, as well as integration into a single information and command system.
But no matter how perfect the fifth-generation aviation systems are, they have one weak link: humans. It is believed that the combat potential of a fighter today is constrained by the limitations of the human body and mind. That is why there is a reason to argue that the sixth generation machines can become completely unmanned and will be capable of speed and maneuverability, which the designers of the past years have never dreamed of.
However, this seemingly obvious thesis is only partially true. The fact is that neither great speed nor outstanding maneuverability can any longer save aircraft from anti-aircraft missiles. Over the past decades, air defense systems have made a big leap forward, and now almost the only salvation from them is stealth.
On the other hand, the use of stealth technologies often leads to a deterioration in flight performance, and always to a sharp rise in the cost of an aircraft. The difference in price is especially noticeable for unmanned systems. For example, the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV costs $ 140 million, and promising American vehicles built using stealth technology will cost several times more. Therefore, the question of whether the sixth generation fighter will be unmanned largely lies in the economic plane.
According to leading experts, such an aircraft should exist in both manned and unmanned versions, and the manned version can be used as a leader for a small unit, including several unmanned vehicles. But why turn a fighter into a control center for drones, isn't it easier to do it from the ground? The problem is that UAVs have not yet become fully autonomous, and sending signals from a distance of several thousand kilometers means delays. In modern air combat, where everything is decided by a split second, such a delay is like death. In addition, in a serious conflict, both sides will actively use all kinds of jammers: it is better to stay close to your drones at such moments.
It is believed that the appearance of the next generation combat vehicles will be very different from the previous ones: even more inconspicuous, they should acquire even greater flying abilities. If the cars of the fifth generation can perform complex maneuvers at subsonic speeds, then the sixth generation should do this already at supersonic speed, and in the afterburner they should also gain hypersonic speed (exceeding Mach 5 - about 6 thousand km / h).
The rest of the sixth generation cars will not fundamentally differ from the fifth or fourth generation with two pluses. They will learn to interact even more widely with land or sea formations. The armament will become even more long-range, which will make it possible to operate hundreds of kilometers from the engagement zone of the enemy's anti-aircraft missile systems. The gigantic price of combat vehicles will not allow the creation of highly specialized aircraft, fighters will only expand their versatility, having learned to use the entire range of existing weapons.
The sixth generation will not soon overtake the fifth. Even generation four fighters with a plus will serve for more than one decade, and such aircraft as the PAK FA will remain in service until the 2050s. The modernization potential of modern fighters is very great, and the technologies of the sixth generation will first find their application on the machines of the previous generation.
Perhaps, laser weapons will also be added to the corrected bombs and missiles we are used to. Thus, the US Air Force plans to equip the sixth generation with several types of laser systems. Low-power - to disable enemy sensors, medium power - to destroy missiles. Finally, powerful lasers will have to hit enemy aircraft and disable ground equipment. But in order to talk about this seriously, it is necessary to resolve the issue with the power supply, increase the power and reduce the price of laser systems.
In order to maintain stealth, all the weapons of the sixth generation will be placed inside the fuselage, similar to how it is done on the fifth generation machines.
With a request to clarify the question of what the sixth generation fighters would look like, we turned to a senior lecturer at the National Aerospace University named after V.I. N.E. Zhukovsky to Pavel Solyanik. “The challenges facing fighter designers have not changed,” he explained. - One of the main aspects is more powerful engines. They must be able to develop supersonic cruising speed without using afterburner. In addition, they must be economical and capable of flying at high altitudes. Repairability is another important area in the creation of new combat vehicles. It is believed that the sixth generation fighters will be hypersonic. Indeed, now there are hypersonic aircraft, but they all exist only in the form of experimental samples. As you know, the difference between an experimental and a serial device is very, very large."
The Americans came up with the idea of dividing jet fighters into generations, but not everyone agrees with their methodology. For example, the Swedes classify their Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter as the fifth generation. They believe that all fighters that can operate within the framework of a single information field should be attributed to the last generation.
We asked the same question to the producer, QA-manager, and aviation documentation specialist of the Eagle Dynamics company, which develops military flight simulators, including for the US Air Force, Andrei Chizh. "The face of the sixth generation fighter is already being determined in the United States," he said. - The main and fundamental difference from existing machines is that the sixth generation is likely to be unmanned. The absence of a person on board solves many problems at once, starting with the physiological limitations of the human body in terms of overload and flight duration, and ending with the moral and ethical problems of the possible death of the pilot."
“With the end of the Cold War, the rate of change of aircraft generations has slowed down greatly,” added Andrey Chizh. - If in the middle of the 20th century the generation change took place in 10-15 years, then the fourth generation of fighters served 30-40 years. The fifth generation, according to some forecasts, will last more than 50 years. During this time, the technologies of combat artificial intelligence will advance far ahead, which will make it possible to create unmanned vehicles more effective than manned ones. Already today, promising UAVs are being tested, such as the Kh-47, which are designed for reconnaissance and strike operations without human participation. With certain reservations, they can be considered the first swallows of a new generation. The first prototypes of such fighters are likely to appear in the 2020s-2030s. Most likely in the USA.
As you might guess from the title, we will talk about American developments. Indeed, it was the Americans who came closest to understanding what a sixth generation fighter should be.
The US Navy is very interested in such an aircraft.Now in service with the US Navy are more than 450 modern F / A-18E / F Super Hornet fighters and about 400 other modifications of the F / A-18. In the foreseeable future, the deck modification of the F-35 - F35C will be added to them. But the resource of "hornets" is not unlimited, and the F-35 program is being severely criticized for being too expensive and low efficiency.
Paradoxically, the most expensive project of the Pentagon - the latest F-35 fighter - formally does not belong to the fifth generation. It is believed that the fifth generation fighter should be able to fly at supersonic speed without using afterburner and have super-maneuverability. The F-35 fighter is incapable of this. In addition, the aircraft is inferior to many fourth-generation aircraft in terms of thrust-to-weight ratio.
Boeing has developed a sixth-generation F / A-XX carrier-based fighter concept specifically for the US Navy. Sometimes this program is also called Next Generation Air Dominance. In the future, F / A-XX will be included in the aviation group of aircraft carriers such as Gerald Ford, which will begin service in 2015. F / A-XX fighters can be used to gain air superiority, destroy mobile and stationary ground targets, and destroy enemy ships.
The appearance of the sixth generation fighter was unveiled to the public in 2008, during an air show in San Diego. It was created according to the tailless aerodynamic design: there is no vertical tail, and the wing shape resembles the wings of the stealthy F-22 and F-35. If you believe the Americans that in terms of frontal stealth the F-22 can be compared to an insect, then we should assume that the F / A-XX will become even more invisible. It would be almost impossible to detect such an aircraft with an outdated radar.
In the image, the F / A-XX appears as a two-seater aircraft, which indirectly confirms the idea of its use for UAV control. In the future, a co-pilot will most likely not be needed to solve standard combat missions. But for coordinating the actions of drones built on the basis of the F / A-XX, the operator is very useful. The developers believe that the unmanned version will be able to stay aloft for up to 50 hours.
The giant weight of the F / A-XX leaves a strange impression. It is difficult to imagine how a huge 45-ton "monster" soars into the sky from the deck of an aircraft carrier. On the other hand, an increase in the total mass of fighters has been a trend in recent decades, and this issue is being solved by installing more powerful engines. For example, the weight of the empty F-22A is even greater than the weight of the rather heavy Su-27 (19,700 kg versus 16,300 kg for the Su-27P), but the thrust-to-weight ratio - the ratio of engine power to the weight of the aircraft - is better for the F-22A.
At the first stage, the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, the most powerful of the existing ones, can be used for the F / A? XX: it is capable of developing thrust up to 19,500 kgf in afterburner. F-35s are now equipped with it, but unlike them, the F / A-XX will have two F135 engines. The F / A-XX fighter can go into operation around 2025-2030, but to seriously talk about full-fledged development, the American fleet needs to find at least $ 40 billion.
In addition to the F / A-XX project, there is another sixth generation concept from Boeing - the F-X. As far as can be judged, it implies the creation of a fighter not for the fleet, but within the framework of the requirements of the US Air Force. Such an aircraft will have to replace the F-22A Raptor in the ranks of the Air Force. Boeing Phantom Works head Darryl Davis said the new fighter will fly faster than the F-35 and will be able to reach supersonic cruising speed. The F-X's air intakes are located at the top of the fuselage - a rather unusual solution for a fighter. So far, the concept is being developed only at the expense of Boeing itself: in recent years, the Pentagon has allocated money for new developments without much zeal. In addition to creating two different combat vehicles, a version of a single fighter for the US Air Force and Navy is being worked out.
As you might expect, another powerful corporation, Lockheed Martin, joined the arms race. Its sixth-generation vision differs from Boeing's designs.The LM concept looks a little more traditional: the aircraft is made according to the integrated aerodynamic scheme and is in many ways similar to the YF-23. After the 2030s, it will have to gradually replace the F-22A. There is almost no information on the new project, while it does not even have a name. But it is clear that Lockheed Martin will put special emphasis on reducing the aircraft's radar-detectable. The company's employees have vast experience in this area, because the stealth fighters F-22A and F-35 are their developments.
The Europeans approached the issue of the new generation in an original way: they abandoned the fifth and immediately proceeded to create the sixth. Dassault nEUROn has become a kind of test for next generation technologies. A stealth reconnaissance drone that first saw the sky in 2012. The device is subsonic and can reach a maximum speed of Mach 0.8. The experimental UAV will not go into series production, but it will allow working out a number of technologies that will form the basis of real sixth generation vehicles. But even if a new generation aircraft is created in Europe, it is naive to believe that it will be able to compete with American fighters. Still, it is quite difficult to step over a whole generation and stay on a par with the leading manufacturers.
China is currently engaged in the development of fifth-generation fighters J-20 and J-31, and is also not averse to fantasizing about the aircraft of the future. In 2013, the flight of the Chinese Lijian stealth drone took place, the technologies of which will ensure this very future. Lijian can take a payload weighing up to 2 tons, and its flight range reaches 4 thousand km. You can be completely confident that Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation and Shenyang will come close to the appearance of the new aircraft pretty soon.
Japan has also expressed a desire to acquire a sixth generation. The fighter will be created based on the experience gained from testing the ATD-X experimental apparatus. The development of the sixth generation will be carried out jointly with the Americans. The ATD-X project itself is sometimes called the fifth generation prototype, but this, as far as can be judged, is incorrect. ATD-X is not a prototype, but a demonstrator of the technologies of the future.
How are things in Russia?
In order to maintain its status as a great power, Russia needs to focus on new technologies. The development of a sixth generation fighter is included in the plans of the Russian leadership, but when exactly it will begin is unknown. The fifth generation fighter T-50 PAK FA is seen as an important link in the chain leading to the new aircraft. Much of what will be used on the sixth generation machine is planned to be worked out on the PAK FA.
Last year, the ex-commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, Pyotr Deinekin, said that Russian specialists are already working on the appearance of a new combat vehicle - probably the sixth generation fighter will be unmanned. But it will hardly be possible to create it faster than the Americans. If in the field of manned military aviation Russia successfully competes with the United States, then in terms of drones it lags very noticeably. The timing of UAV tests is constantly being postponed, and the tests themselves often end in failure.
True, Honored Test Pilot Sergei Bogdan believes that there is no need to rush things, just like manned aircraft should not be written off. Moreover, in his opinion, the first sixth generation fighter will appear only in fifteen years, and during this time a lot can change.
Although the situation is not easy with the development of unmanned technologies in Russia, they still do not stand still. The most ambitious domestic project in this area is the Skat unobtrusive UAV, whose technologies may one day form the basis of a sixth generation fighter. The reconnaissance and strike drone was developed by the MiG Design Bureau and presented at the MAKS-2007 air show. Alas, the vehicle shown was just a model, and further development of the Skat was frozen.
In conclusion, we note that now any confident predictions about the sixth generation are premature.Most likely, the sixth generation fighters will inherit a lot from the fifth, and besides that they will become unmanned. A more predictable option is that the unmanned and manned versions of the new fighters will coexist. In any case, at the first stage.