Warplanes: The Sixth-Generation Fighter Competition


December 16, 2022: In November China went public with its design for a sixth-generation air superiority fighter. The Chinese design is similar to those under development by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan. The use of the term generations developed to describe the rapid development of new jet-powered combat aircraft. The first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and Russian MiG-15). These aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable, especially because of the engines. The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4 and MiG-23. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16 and MiG-29. The 5th generation, so far, consists of the F-22, F-35 and China’s J-20. Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. The Russians had a hard time developing their 5th generation, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. Other nations did the same and it wasn’t until the 2020s that there were three different fifth-gen fighters purportedly in service. There were several decades between fourth and fifth generation aircraft, which is partly due to the end of the Cold War in 1991 and China not becoming a major military power until two decades later.

China and Russia have not gone public with many details of their programs. Both have released drawings of prototypes. Like all other sixth-gen fighters, the general shape is of a flying wing similar to the U.S. B-2 and B-21 bombers. The first B-21 prototype was recently displayed and it is, as expected, a smaller and much more capable version of the B-2. Both bombers share a similar shape but with its more compact size the B-21 carries about half the weight of bombs. Smart bombs reduced the need for a bomber to carry as many bombs as the older B-2 and B-52 carry. Improved stealth and electronics of the B-21 enable it to carry out reconnaissance and air superiority missions successfully (the latter is based on its ability to destroy enemy ground-based air defenses). This makes the B-21 seem like a larger version of the B-35 fighters and to a certain extent it is. The B-21 weighs about four times more than the 30-ton F-35 and uses upgraded versions of the pilot-friendly software and capabilities of the F-35. The B-21 is designed to act as a superior SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) aircraft by carrying more EW (Electronic Warfare) systems and a lot of more decoys and anti-radar missiles. The B-21 can also carry smaller jet powered UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that also act as decoy systems. All this is very ambitious but based on the success of the B-2 and F-35, the B-21 has a good chance of succeeding.

Meanwhile the United States actually has two sixth-generation fighter programs underway; one for the air force and one for the navy carrier operations. The fifth-generation F-35 solved that problem by having different models built to handle the needs of the air force and the navy. That may eventually happen for sixth-generation fighters but at the moment the air force and navy are developing separate but similar aircraft.

China is ahead of Russia with its sixth-generation effort because China got its J-20 fifth-generation fighter into service faster and more successfully than the Russian Su-57 effort. China has more cash and tech than Russia.

The European and Japanese sixth-generation fighter programs have been moving towards a merger around the British Tempest design. Britain and Japan were already cooperating on the new engine needed for Tempest and the Japanese FX. Then came an arrangement to jointly develop the special software needed. This is software the F-35 already has and F-35 pilots everywhere (including Japan and Britain) are impressed by the B-35 software. Now Japan is discussing developing a joint sixth-gen fighter. Britain has already had several European countries join the Tempest development effort. With the addition of Japan this means the Tempest FX (or whatever it is called) will be more capable, get into service earlier and be less expensive. What it comes down to is three major sixth-gen fighter designs from the United States, the Tempest coalition and China.

Meanwhile the U.S. Air Force and Navy are trying to agree on how much and what kind of AI (artificial intelligence) is to be used in future combat aircraft avionics (aircraft electronics). This is in large part due to the fact that AI has been a growing factor in avionics for decades in the form of software-controlled landing systems for commercial aircraft, system monitoring and a growing number of other uses. All this began with the software developed for instrument landings (where the pilot relied on instruments, weather preventing a good view of the ground). In the last decade the U.S. Navy has taken that sort of thing to a higher degree of complexity by perfecting software that could handle landing on a moving air field (an aircraft carrier). This is considerably more complex than the usual situation (landing on an airfield) and requires that the software make lots of decisions correctly and at high speed. Carrier landings require more powerful hardware and software aboard the aircraft. The navy expected glitches and bugs but sees itself catching up to the reliability of commercial landing software (which has been used very successfully on UAVs) within years rather than decades and appears to have already achieved its goal.

Meanwhile there are similar software systems used to quickly let the pilot know the best route through bad weather, enemy air defenses and equipment failures aboard his aircraft. Because all these AI systems are simply showing up as (according to the developers) “normal development” of avionics, they are often simply adapted from systems already being used in commercial aircraft. The military aviation community has long been working on how to use AI for purely military uses. Actually, there is already commercial software available for purely military applications and that is the stuff used in computer games to control AI-run aircraft (enemy of friendly). This sort of AI has been in development for commercial air combat games for over two decades, but military leaders are reluctant to embrace this sort of software.

Meanwhile many military people, including pilots and software engineers, and even some generals in the air force, believe that its next generation fighter might not have a pilot on board, or at least be “pilot optional”. Many air force generals admit that the F-35 may be the last manned fighter. Some also believe that the F-35 will be facing stiff competition from pilotless fighters before F-35 production ends in the 203os.

Not surprisingly UAVs are not particularly popular with many U.S. Air Force and naval aviation leaders, but that is not the case in many other countries. Air force generals around the world see the unpiloted jet fighter as a way to break the monopoly the U.S. Air Force has had on air supremacy for the last 70 years. Most Americans don't even think of this long domination of the air, but potential enemies of the United States are well aware of it, and that domination has a profound effect on how those nations do their military planning. In effect, if you think about going to war with the United States in the immediate future, you take for granted that American aircraft will control the skies above. Robotic jet fighters could change that. And this is forcing American air force generals to confront a very unsavory prospect; a sixth-generation fighter that is flown by software, not a pilot. China has not announced this pilotless option for its stealth fighter but any jet fighter can be turned into a pilotless aircraft controlled remotely or by onboard software.

It's not just that most of those American aviation commanders began their careers as fighter pilots. No, the reason is more practical. American air superiority has largely been the result of superior pilots. The U.S. didn't always have the best aircraft, but they always had the most talented and resourceful pilots. And that's what gave the U.S. its edge. Will that translate to software piloted fighters? Research to date seems to indicate it will eventually. What is unclear is when exactly it will arrive.

Meanwhile, simulations, using fighters flown by software, versus those flown by humans, have been used for over three decades. The "software pilots" have gotten better and better. Moreover, a fighter without a pilot is more maneuverable because some maneuvers are too stressful on the human body. UAV fighters can be smaller, cheaper, stealthier and more expendable. But the key to software pilots is the development of superior tactics, and AI that is more capable than anything your opponent can come up with.

The U.S. Air Force, and several other air forces, have already created fighter pilot software, and now the United States, and Russia, are creating pilotless fighters. Many air force generals are convinced that the pilotless fighters will perform as well for real, as they have in the simulations. So convinced are U.S. Air Force generals that they have seriously considered a sixth-generation fighter that will either not carry a human pilot, or be available in pilotless or piloted versions. Otherwise, enemy pilotless fighters would have an edge over the U.S. sixth generation aircraft.

The potential superiority of U.S. pilotless fighters is partly driven by the fact that most American fighter pilots are geeks. Many can create software, and have a deep understanding of the many computers, and their software, that modern aircraft contain. It's the fighter pilots who will play a key role in creating the best "software pilots." The thinking is that American control of the air will be maintained by a new generation combat aircraft controlled by software, not someone in a cockpit.




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