“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.