Tuesday, 11 May 2010

6th Generation Fighter : Boeing F/A-XX on Display

Conceptual drawings of futuristic unmanned fighter jets adorned glossy posters at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition sponsored by the Navy League in early May. And many Navy leaders talk about 2025 or earlier as the target year for those aircraft to join the fleet.

But the Navy is preparing to keep today’s manned aircraft on carrier decks well beyond that timeline. Plans are underway to extend the lives of today’s F/A-18 Super Hornets by 50 percent — from 6,000 flight hours to 9,000.

Considering that most Super Hornets fly about 350 hours a year under today’s high operational tempo, the 3,000-hour extension would keep the newest aircraft flying for at least another 25 years.

And if the Navy buys another batch of Super Hornets, as senior officials are suggesting, that means Boeing’s fourth-generation fighter/attack jet will be deploying on carriers until nearly 2040.

Unmanned fighters

The Navy is pressing ahead with the lengthy acquisition process for an unmanned fighter by issuing a call for private-sector industry to submit information about a possible “unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike” aircraft.

That request calls for “limited fleet operational use” by 2018. The Navy’s defense contractors have responded. At the expo, aviation companies displayed possibilities beyond the current Navy-funded demonstration project, the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was pushing a carrier version of the Predator C Avenger. The “Sea Avenger” uses many systems similar to the Predator and Reapers already in use by the Air Force.

And Boeing displayed images of its F/A-XX “sixth-generation fighter,” which the company’s drawings show in both two-seat and unmanned variants. But those aircraft are still pretty far away. The Navy has yet to land a large, low-observable unmanned aircraft on a carrier.

Unmanned helos

A larger unmanned helicopter may be significantly closer to reality. The Navy on April 30 issued a request for information about a possible unmanned helicopter ready for operations as early as 2016. It’s referred to as a “persistent ship-based unmanned aircraft system.”

The April 30 request seeks a much larger aircraft than the MQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned helo built by Northrop Grumman. The Fire Scout, which just finished a test deployment aboard the frigate McInerney, is less than 24 feet long.

The request calls for an aircraft closer to the size of a traditional, manned helicopter. It should be able to operate from cruisers, destroyers or amphibs. It should have a payload of 1,000 pounds, a combat radius far wider than Fire Scout’s and be able to use satellite communications rather than line-of-site control systems, according to Navy documents.

Options on display at the expo included an aircraft from Northrop Grumman, the Fire-X, which would use essentially the same control mechanisms as the Fire Scout. Another potential offering was the Boeing YMQ-18A Hummingbird.


  1. future is here

  2. Boeing needs a new project or they are out of the fighter business, it is really that simple. It isn't something that would happen overnight of course, but that is clearly where things would be heading.

    They can keep themselves busy with upgrade packages and exports for a while(as the Russians have done), particularly with the SH, but unless they get a new project in the pipeline they are going to run out of work pretty quickly.

    I for one am not convinced that the F-35 will be the last manned fighter. There will be at least one more generation of fighters and Boeing is smart to try to stay on top of that.

    What will define a 6th generation aircraft? It will likely be a combination of two things. A platform optimized for network centric warfare in the extreme, and directed energy weapons. It is likely these aircraft will have a reduced emphasis on maneuverability and will instead prioritize range, endurance, sensors, payload, and networking capabilities.

    The aircraft would fight as part of a larger overall system, directing UAVs much as a Patriot missile battery directs its various launching stations. It is quite possible a second crewman would be desierable in a 6th generation aircraft to facilitate this command and control mission. The fighter itself will still be capable of delivering weapons, but will see an emphasis shift from doing everything directly, to acting as one element of a larger system. (As is already taking place with 4th and 5th generation aircraft.)

  3. The funny thing is if you look at the photos a year earlier it looked like a lofted-surface version of the Nighthawk, obviously a massive amount of "R+D" gone in to it hehe.

    I could whip up something similar given half a day.

    Proves nothing, except that boeing need to invest in a better CGI team.

  4. "According to reports, Boeing is close to landing this deal."

    Reports huh? Got a copy handy?

    It is with disturbing regularity that I am forced to remind certain posters on this message board that making things up is simply not going to do them any good.

    Boeing would love to be involved in some kind of credible 5th or 6th generation fighter design project, but as of right now all they are showing off are extremely preliminary design studies. Sort of a "these are the sorts of things we think we could build depending on certain technological assumptions."

    Even if some customer showed up at Boeing's front door with a set or requirements and a dump-truck of money tomorrow morning, any new aircraft would require at least a decade of work before it was available to do something useful.