A bit of a bombshell was dropped a few weeks ago when the USAF admitted to flying a new prototype of its "Next Generation Air Dominance" fighter.  Not many details were revealed besides that.  

This, of course, has led to rampant speculation as to what this new fighter could be.  What does it look like?  What capabilities does it have?  Who makes it?  How soon will it be before it sees service?

The timing is certainly odd.  Only a few weeks prior, the USAF announced it would be launching a new "eSeries" designation of aircraft.  These new aircraft, of which the T-7 Red Hawk (now eT-7) would be the first, utilize "digital engineering" to speed up the development...  Which makes you wonder what the hell  they used to develop aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.  Draft paper and slide rules?

The F-35 has yet to reach adolescence so it is curious as to why the Pentagon would be willing to devote resources to "the next big thing".  The answer to this, of course, is the F-22.  

The F-22 is still the most dominant fighter in the world, but it might not stay that way for long.  Potential adversaries like the Su-57 and J-20 are well on their way.  While these fighters may not offer everything the Raptor does,  they offer enough to give pause.  This is especially true when considering the considering the age and number of F-22s available.  With less than 200 airframes, many reaching the middle of their expected service life, their value in a large-scale conflict is quickly diminishing.  

One can argue about the capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II...  But the mere existence of the F-15EX argues that even the USAF does not have the utmost confidence in JSF as an air superiority fighter.  It needs something bigger, faster, and better armed.  

So what can we expect from this "NGAD"?

It is hard to say at this point.  Do not expect any massively groundbreaking designs just yet.  Aviation buffs may be looking forward to the upcoming "6th Generation " of fighters, but how would we even define those aircraft?

The idea of fighter "generations" is rather ambiguous in the first place.  Sure, we can point at an F-4 Phantom II and call and call it "3rd gen", but that definition only becomes clear in retrospect.  The F-4 ended up defining the generation because it was so successful...  But what if it was not?

Things get even hazier with newer fighters like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, and Gripen.  While clearly a step up from "4th gen" fighters like the legacy Hornet and F-16, they are not quite up to "5th gen" criteria set by the F-22 Raptor.  This earns the Super Hornet a "4+" or "4.5th gen" description...  But what about the further enhanced capabilities of the the Super Hornet Block III or Gripen E?  Now we are getting into the "4++ gen" territory.  

What truly defines a fighter generation is that it is built on the lessons learned from the fighters that came before it.  First generation fighter pilots asked for more speed and power, so second generation fighters like the F-104 offered it in spades.  Second generation fighter pilots discovered that guns were impractical at those speeds, so third gen fighters like the F-4 started incorporating powerful radars and long range missiles.  Third gen pilots complained about the lack of maneuverability, so fourth gen fighters manage to balance speed, maneuverability, and firepower.  The proliferation of more advanced surface-to-air missiles, combined with the "shock and awe" tactics adopted during the Gulf War demanded a sneakier approach.  This led to the stealthy designs of today.  

If the "6th Generation" of fighter jets is to build on the lesson of the 5th Generation, what can we expect to see?

There are the usual buzzwords, of course.  UCAVs are still all the rage.  Whether they are ready for ready for more demanding tasks like air superiority is still up for debate.  Getting rid of the "meat in the seat" does have some advantages.  With worries about g-LOC out of the way, a 6th gen fighter could theoretically maneuver well above the 9g barrier imposed on many modern jets.  There is also no need for all that bulky life-support equipment, fragile canopy, and ejection seat.  Not only that, but the artificial intelligence (AI) flying the jet is less likely to get disorientated, does not get tired after a long flight, does not have to power through emotional baggage, or regret having that extra-spicy breakfast burrito.  

Laser weapons also seem to be likely.  Although they always seem to be "just a few years away", there are some rather daunting challenges in implementing them.  Airborne lasers need to be powerful enough to disable a hostile threat, yet small enough to fit on an aircraft.  Early airborne laser were absolutely massive, filling up an entire 747 with its bulk.  Newer solid state lasers promise to drastically reduce the size of usable laser weapons.  Reducing size is not enough, however.  The laser must also be precise enough to "paint" its target long enough to damage it.  Unlike kinetic weapons (missile and bullets), which transmit all of their energy on impact, directed energy weapons (DEW) do damage over time.  (Think of a blowtorch versus a hammer).  

Of course, there are all sorts of other new-fangled technologies that may find their way into a 6th gen fighter.  Enhanced electronic warfare, superior communication and data-link capabilities, along with other "non-sexy" stuff like maintainability and logistic improvements.

As far as learning lessons from the previous generation, there is not a whole lot to go on.  

Fifth generation fighters have yet to be truly battle tested.  So far, they have only been used in vastly asymmetrical warfare against a vastly inferior foe.  This is not a true test of a fighter's mettle.  

Perhaps the most important lessons learned from 5th generation fighters are not so much learned from their combat performance, but their development.  Both the F-22 and F-35 suffered from a protracted development time, budget overruns, and political controversy.  Any 6th generation fighter would do well to avoid such things.  

This possibly explains the USAF's commitment to "digital engineering" and a new eSeries of aircraft similar to the "Century Series".  The Century Series (F-100 to F-117) were developed at a breakneck pace, each of them offering groundbreaking capabilities.  With both Russia and China speeding up development of their fighter programs, the Pentagon is under pressure to replicate that speedy evolution of  its own fighter jets...  While simultaneously keeping costs down.  

It is not an impossible task. 

The T-7 Red Hawk can be seen as proof-positive that a new design can be designed, prototyped, and deemed airworthy in a short period of time.  Boeing (assisted by Saab) managed emerge successful in the USAF's T-X trainer program by offering a clean-sheet design that remained cost-competitive with already proven trainer jets like the KAI T-50 Golden Hawk.  

This is the future.  

It may be common practice to fly an existing platform for 30 to 50 years, but only if that platform is truly versatile.  This explains the longevity of aircraft like the F-15 and B-52.  Unfortunately, there is no way to predict what threats will emerge during an aircraft's operational lifetime.  Much of the critique directed towards the F-22 and F-35 is that their long, drawn out development results in parts of the aircraft being obsolete before it even becomes operational.  This is where stealth design becomes a double-edged sword.  So much of the aircraft's design is "baked in" that becomes impractical to make changes after the fact.  Look for more modular systems in the future, allowing for more versatility and adaptability.  

For example; imagine if a fighter sized laser weapon did become practical within the next few years.  Outfitting this new weapon to the F-15 or Super Hornet would be relatively easy... just strap it to a pylon.  This becomes more of a challenge with the F-22 or F-35 however.  There is the option of strapping a laser pod onto a pylon, but this deteriorates the aircraft's stealth characteristics.  The ideal option would be to incorporate the new weapon into a weapons bay, but this involves more challenges as engineers struggle around size constraints and getting the weapon into a firing position.  Hopefully 6th generation fighters will improve on this.  

So what did the USAF actually fly?

There are plenty of hypotheses ranging from an F-22 replacement to a "Skyborg" drone.  The answer, more likely, something far more mundane.  

Neither the F-22 nor the F-35 are going away anytime soon.  Instead of true clean sheet design, it would make more sense to simply develop a new variant.  Given that the F-22 is out of production, that leaves the F-35 as the more likely subject.

More clues are revealed in the USAF's plans to face off a manned fighter versus a UCAV next year.  In a test like that, best practice would be to eliminate all the variables.  This would necessitate both the manned fighter and UCAV using similar platforms. 

While the test could be done using F-16s, this would not reflect "the future" of air combat.  Besides, the F-35 design actually lends itself well to a UCAV variant.  Its DAS provides it with 360 degree vision, mimicking (even improving on) a pilot's situational awareness.  Its much advertised "sensor fusion" capabilities would lend itself quite well to a mixed fleet of manned and unmanned F-35s.  It also makes sense that an unmanned version of the F-35 would be developed for higher threat environments.

Developing an unmanned variant of the F-35 would please a few high-level beancounters as well.  Spreading out the JSF's development costs even further would help ease of the sticker shock of the world's most expensive defense program.  In one fell swoop, the Pentagon could effectively double the amount of F-35 variants, with unmanned versions of the A, B, and C models.  

This is all, of course, pure conjecture on my part.  Perhaps the USAF does have some new hypersonic uberfighter armed with lasers and proton torpedoes...  But I wouldn't count on it.  Instead, look for a "5+ Generation" fighter that improves on an existing platform.  

Improving on an existing platform would actually mirror the "Century Series" that the "eSeries" pays homage to.  Remember that the F-100 Super Sabre did not deviate too far from the F-86 Sabre it was evolved from.  Both were single-engine, swept-wing day fighters that would later be adopted into the fighter-bomber role.  The F-100 merely took a proven platform and improved upon it.  

Such a strategy would greatly benefit the NGAD.

While the F-22 and F-35 are indeed impressive machines, they both suffered from being ambitious.  The Raptor was an attempt to take the already impressive attributes of the F-15 and impart it with technology that was either in its infancy in a cost-no-object exercise.  Meanwhile the JSF attempted to produce the ultimate "Jack-of-all-trades" fighter, attempting to fill multiple niches (not all of them compatible) with a single airframe type.  Both aircraft would end up suffering from delays and cost overruns.  

Starting simple with a new "eSeries" aircraft would have the benefit of not only reducing costs and shortening timelines, but improving the chances of success.  This would make further "eSeries" aircraft much more politically palatable, allowing for more opportunities to push the boundaries with follow-up projects.  

While a simpler "5+ generation" variant of the F-35 may be a little anti-climatic as the USAF's first foray into Next Generation Air Dominance, it could lead the way to something far more exiting...  And successful.  


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