US Air Force: The Quest for a Sixth Generation Fighter

US Air Force: The Quest for a Sixth Generation Fighter
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President Obama recently requested from Congress  a 2012 defense budget of $671 billion vs the $683 billion granted in 2011. The budget calls for $553 billion in the “base budget” and $117.8 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army portion of the base budget is $144.9 billion, the Navy and Marine Corps portion is $161.4 billion, and the Air Force share is set at $150 billion. In 2011 the Air Force budget was higher, at $170.6 billion. Under the bipartisan budget agreement reached last August, the 2013 defense budget will average the same level as in 2008. For the rest of the decade, the budget will only grow with inflation resulting in a $487 billion reduction from the growth the administration had planned over the next 10 years.

In the 2011 defense budget, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a 5th generation fighter, was one of the most costly program with a budget of $11.5 billion. The fiscal 2012 budget requests a reorganization of the F-35 joint strike fighter program with more funds for research and development for the fifth-generation fighter and defers procurement to the out years. Still, DOD will receive 32 of the planes in fiscal 2012. The United States intends to buy a total of 2,443 F-35 aircraft for an estimated US$323 billion, making it the most expensive defense program ever.

As a reminder, the F-35 Lightning II replaced De Facto the F-22 Raptor, both from Lockheed Martin, when the DOD ceased F-22 orders in April 2009. The high cost of the aircraft (US$150 million a unit vs US$122 million for an  F-35A ), delays in the Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter programs (Respectively the Russian Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50) which will replace by 2016 MiG-29 and Su-27 , and the Chinese Chengdu J-20 by 2017 which will probably replace their J-10 and JF-17), a US ban on Raptor exports, and the ongoing development of the planned cheaper and more versatile F-35 resulted in calls to end F-22 production.

In this context, the announcement of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division of next-generation fighter to be delivered by 2030, sounds intriguing. Before the announcement, the USAF considers the F-22 aircraft as unmatched by any known or projected fighter. A zoom on the F22 vs F35 characteristics and capabilities can be used as a reference to foresee the capabilities of the next generation of fighters (Source Air Force Association – AFA).

Besides the budget considerations and the pros and cons that led to halt the F22 production and focus on the F-35, probably one of the very interesting points to analyze in this announcement, is the technological trends and features of the next generation of fighters, the sixth one.

According to Flight Global, Lockheed stated that its “next-generation fighter should include “greatly increased speed”, more range and new features like self-healing structures and multi-spectral stealth”. Such capabilities must be supported by new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapons, Lockheed said, adding some of these are “yet to be fully imagined”.

Air Force magazine provides an interesting classification of the different fighter generation with their capabilities which may hint to some of the possible technologies that the 6th generation will embed.

Different Generation of FightersAir Force Magazine – Different Generation of Fighters

Fighter Generations

The 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.

F22 Raptor on Discovery Channel’s “Ultimate Strike Planes” documentary.

In a presolicitation notice states, from November 4, 2010, the USAF states that: “The envisioned system may possess enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration, and weapons effects.  The primary mission in the future Next Gen TACAIR (Next Generation Tactical Aircraft) definition is Offensive and Defensive Counterair to include subset missions including Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), Close Air Support (CAS) and Air Interdiction (AI).  It may also fulfill airborne electronic attack and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities.  This is not an all-inclusive list and the Next Gen TACAIR definition will mature and sharpen as the market research and Capabilities Based Assessment (CBA) unfold.  The ongoing CBA is assessing potential capability gaps, while this CRFI will support a concurrent market research assessment.  The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defense systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons, and cyber attack capabilities.  It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time-frame.”

One of the most interesting aspects in the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division announcement, is the concept of self-healing structures. Self-healing materials are a class of smart materials that have the structurally incorporated ability to repair damage caused by mechanical. In case of fighters, a Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) may, for example, be coupled with a self-healing composite structure to repair damages and adapt the flight envelope.

The future is definitely very interesting.

Sources: Flight Global, USAF, Air Force Magazine, Wikipedia, Air Force Association (AFA) Adaptive structures: engineering applications  By David Wagg.

Photo Credits: Lockheed Martin, Flight Global.