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Here’s the Tech That Will Define the Air Force’s Secret New Fighter Jet

  • Engineers are already sketching out must-have technology for sixth-generation fighters, including the Air Force’s secret new fighter jet.
  • Sixth-gen fighters will likely start entering service in large numbers in the mid-2030s.
  • Consolidation and simplicity are essential features, with technology easing the burden on designers, pilots, and maintainers alike.

    The race to build cutting-edge fighter jets is back with a vengeance. Today, with less than 1,000 fifth-generation fighters flying worldwide, the world is already looking ahead to the next generation.

    You love badass planes. So do we. Let’s nerd out over them together.

    What technologies and capabilities will define the so-called “sixth generation,” including the Air Force’s secret new fighter jet, which it shockingly designed, tested, and flew in the span of just one year? The answer might surprise you.

    The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 put the brakes on more than 45 years of intense fighter jet development. The Cold War saw the rapid introduction of several key technologies, including jet engines, radar-guided missiles, heads-up displays, and stealth, plus the development of the first four generations of postwar fighter aircraft. In the 2000s, the U.S. released the first fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

    Fifth-generation fighters are generally defined as aircraft developed from the ground up with radar-evading stealth, the ability to cruise above Mach 1 without afterburners, advanced radars and infrared sensors, and the extensive use of computers and software to not only fly the airplane, but also process sensor data.

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    Since the Raptor’s debut, other planes to join the fifth-generation pantheon include the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and its international rivals, the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi Su-57.

    The evolving great power environment, particularly Russia and China acting aggressively against their neighbors while beefing up their armed forces, is driving increased spending on fighters. The U.S., Japan, the U.K., and France and Germany are all working to develop sixth-generation fighters. The question is: Just what makes up a sixth-gen fighter, anyway?

    In a recent webinar, engineers at Raytheon Intelligence & Space revealed they believe the next generation of fighters will be defined by several new technologies, including just one large transmitter that acts as an air-to-air radar, air-to-ground radar, radio, and electronic warfare platform. A single system controlled by software would replace several different systems, switching between tasks as needed.

    The Raytheon engineers said sixth-gen fighters will also include self-landing systems, according to an Aerotech News recap of the webinar. Future aircraft will likely be designed to land autonomously on aircraft carriers, which could be used to land the aircraft in rough weather at a “precise landing zone.” A sixth-gen fighter could land autonomously, without human control, or provide guidance to pilots landing under challenging circumstances.

    And then there’s artificial intelligence, which will function as a sort of copilot to a human pilot on a next-gen fighter jet. In fact, earlier this year, the Air Force revealed its secret new fighter jet will have an R2-D2-style sidekick, similar to the AI that operated a U-2 spy plane in an historic first.

    A cockpit-bound AI could oversee the jamming of enemy radars and monitor for threats to the plane, like incoming missiles, and then automatically launch chaff or flares to lure the missile away. AI could also be used to fly a “loyal wingman” drone, a semi-autonomous uncrewed aircraft that could fly alongside crewed fighters.

    What other bells and whistles will define the fighters of the future? We’ll find out soon enough.


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