The technologies are emerging, but what’s needed is a program to pull them together.
Within the next few years, we will begin work on the sixth generation [fighter] capabilities necessary for future air dominance.” The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael B. Donley, and the USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, issued that statement in an April 13 Washington Post article.
The Air Force may have to move a little faster to develop that next generation fighter. While anticipated F-22 and F-35 inventories seem settled, there won’t be enough to fix shortfalls in the fighter fleet over the next 20 years, as legacy fighters retire faster than fifth generation replacements appear.
The Air Force will have to answer a host of tough questions about the nature of the next fighter.
Should it provide a true “quantum leap” in capability, from fifth to sixth generation, or will some interim level of technology suffice? When will it have to appear? What kinds of fighters will potential adversaries be fielding in the next 20 years? And, if the program is delayed, will a defense industry with nothing to work on in the meantime lose its know-how to deliver the needed system?
What seems certain is that more is riding on the Air Force’s answers than just replacing worn-out combat aircraft.
Initial concept studies for what would become the F-22 began in the early 1980s, when production of the F-15 was just hitting its stride. It took 20 years to go from those concepts to initial operational capability.
Fighter GenerationsThe definition of fighter generations has long been subject to debate. However, most agree that the generations break down along these broad lines:
Generation 1: Jet propulsion (F-80, German Me 262).
Generation 2: Swept wings; range-only radar; infrared missiles (F-86, MiG-15).
Generation 3: Supersonic speed; pulse radar; able to shoot at targets beyond visual range (“Century Series” fighters such as F-105; F-4; MiG-17; MiG-21).
Generation 4: Pulse-doppler radar; high maneuverability; look-down, shoot-down missiles (F-15, F-16, Mirage 2000, MiG-29).
Generation 4+: High agility; sensor fusion; reduced signatures (Eurofighter Typhoon, Su-30, advanced versions of F-16 and F/A-18, Rafale).
Generation 4++: Active electronically scanned arrays; continued reduced signatures or some “active” (waveform canceling) stealth; some supercruise (Su-35, F-15SE).
Generation 5: All-aspect stealth with internal weapons, extreme agility, full-sensor fusion, integrated avionics, some or full supercruise (F-22, F-35).
Potential Generation 6: extreme stealth; efficient in all flight regimes (subsonic to multi-Mach); possible “morphing” capability; smart skins; highly networked; extremely sensitive sensors; optionally manned; directed energy weapons.
Technology Readiness LevelsPentagon leaders now seek to reduce weapon risks and costs by deferring production until technologies are mature. Pentagon technology readiness levels—TRLs—are defined as follows:
TRL 1: Basic principles observed and reported. Earliest transition from basic scientific research to applied research and development. Paper studies of a technology’s basic properties.
TRL 2: Invention begins; practical applications developed. No proof or detailed analysis yet.
TRL 3: Active R&D begins. Analytical and lab studies to validate predictions. Components not yet integrated.
TRL 4: Basic elements are shown to work together in a “breadboard,” or lab setting.
TRL 5: Fidelity of demonstrations rises. Basic pieces are integrated in a somewhat realistic way. Can be tested in a simulated environment.
TRL 6: Representative model or prototype. A major step up in readiness for use. Possible field tests.
TRL 7: Prototype of system in operational environment is demonstrated—test bed aircraft, for example.
TRL 8: Final form of the technology is proved to work. Usually the end of system development. Weapon is tested in its final form.
TRL 9: Field use of the technology in its final form, under realistic conditions.