The Next Generation of Manned Fighters


Categorie: Air, David Axe |


“There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter,” U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen famously said in 2009, referring to the long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.” After 2030 or so, dogfighting drones would take over from the traditional pilot-in-the-cockpit fighter, many believed.

But Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, before he retired, offered a different view. “So far, technology does not allow the ’360-degree spherical situational awareness’ necessary for a [drone] pilot to sense a rapidly changing situation and take the appropriate action in a split-second battle,” Air Force magazine reported after a long talk with Deptula.

True to that assessment, several countries have launched programs to buy new, manned fighters beginning around 2030. If the American F-22 and F-35, Russia’s T-50 and China’s J-20 represent the fifth generation of traditional fighters, then some of these new concepts could represent the sixth.

What’s most interesting is who’s even considering new fighters, and who isn’t. Every single country weighing a new 5G or 6G fighter is in Asia or the Pacific. Traditional European powers, once responsible for essentially all combat-aircraft development, have now abandoned the field.


Boeing F/A-XX

F/A-XX. Boeing art.

The Air Force and Navy both have concepts for 6G fighters. For the Navy’s F/A-XX concept, Boeing proposes a tailless delta with all-aspect stealth. Lockheed and Northrop Grumman could weigh in with their own ideas. The Air Force wants a fighter to succeed the F-22. This so-called “Next-Generation TACAIR” could emphasize “ever-increasing amounts of command and control information,” according to Northrop’s Paul K. Meyer. A U.S. 6G fighter could also be hypersonic, or at least employ hypersonic weapons in addition to directed-energy weapons such as lasers and microwaves.


Shenyang fighter

Shenyang fighter. Fan art.

Chengdu’s J-20 prototype is already flying, but many analysts expect another advanced fighter design to appear soon courtesy of the Shenyang bureau, possibly designated “J-12,” “J-13″ or “J-14.” The J-20 has debatable stealth qualities, likely uses imported engines and might not qualify as a full 5G fighter, to say nothing of 6G. The J-12/13/14 is likely to suffer similar limitations.



ATD-X. Mitsubishi photo.

Wary of an increasingly capable Chinese air force, Japan is considering developing its own next-generation fighter, the ATD-X, meant to replace the country’s roughly 200 F-15s. Japan has a very capable boutique aerospace industry that in recent years has produced original airlifters, patrol planes, light fighters and attack helicopters. While it’s within Japan’s technical means to produce a fifth- or sixth-generation fighter, it’s not clear that the Japanese public would be willing to pay for it.

South Korea


KF-X model.

Seoul joined the ranks of aerospace leaders when it collaborated with Lockheed Martin to produce the T/A-50 light fighter. Building on this accomplishment, and increasingly alarmed by a belligerent and unpredictable North Korea, South Korea is officially pursuing a 5G fighter, the KF-X, to replace today’s F-4s and F-16s. Turkey and Indonesia are both interested in joining the project, but even so financing will be a major obstacle.



MCA concept.

It took Indian industry nearly 40 years to produce its first homegrown light fighter, the Tejas. Next, New Delhi wants to produce the 5G Medium Combat Aircraft. But at current development rates, it might be 2050 before the new fighter flies.


5 Responses to “The Next Generation of Manned Fighters”

  1. Prestwick says:

    I don’t think even France or Sweden have a clue what their 5/6G fighter is going to be. There is to my knowledge no public consensus with Europe as to what to do beyond the F-35/Gripen/Rafale/Typhoon. I think some kind of fudge will happen around 2020 but Europe will have a very old fleet by the time it comes around. The Typhoon took over 20 years to bring to service.

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  3. Marcase says:

    “So far, technology does not allow the ’360-degree spherical situational awareness’ necessary…”

    Actually, technology does. The F-35′s DAS allowes the pilot to “see through” his aircraft. This means an F-35 pilot doesn’t has to point the nose of his aircraft to fire his weapons; he can just look over his shoulder, lock the target via his visor, and launch his off-angle, off-boresight missiles.

    This DAS, or distributed aperature system, can be integrated into UCAVs together with AIM-9X or future T-3 “Terminator” missiles – the tech is here.

  4. Prestwick says:

    The Eurofighter Typhoon has a similar system where he can lock a target via his helmet and shoot that way.

    The problem comes where you link that technology to the AI and expect it to not only acquire a target but identify it and distinguish it between friend and foe. That is where the problem is.

    At RGU in Aberdeen, Scotland their students were working with neural networks and adapted them to several defence or security minded tasks like tracking targets. One team constructed an autonomous small blimp about half a meter in length that could acquire and follow human targets but it couldn’t tell you if the target was American, British or Evil Empire (China/Russia).So it’d just acquire the first large target it saw and followed it around all day like a curious deer. Quite unnerving.

  5. Moe DeLaun says:

    I was so jazzed with the All-Seeing Eye-candy, and you had to be a buzzkill…

    Funny and cogent comment. The blimp-deer’s behavior is emergent, unexpected and droll, but it points to the larger issue of human/nonhuman interaction. We are evolving new lifeforms of a sort and I predict that we will adapt our old ways of working with animals and spirits to these new entities.

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