What will the sixth generation fighter look like? It may not quite follow the logical progression in fighter technology.

The sixth generation fighter is going to be incredible. It will be fast, sleek, super stealthy and carry a payload like no other fighter platform before it. It’s going to look like a cross between a Stealth Fighter and Clint Eastwood’s Fire Fox. It might look like something Darth Vader himself had nightmares about.

It will turn on a dime and have the most powerful engines ever deployed on a fighter jet. In fact, the sixth gen fighter will be so capable, it’s going to make the F-22 Raptor look like a 1972 Volkswagen bus.

No… No it’s not. This might be a tough pill to swallow…

I hate to say it. As a fighter pilot and lover of advanced military hardware, especially fighter jets, the sixth gen fighter will look quite a bit different from what some would call logical progression in fighter technology. Why wouldn’t the sixth gen fighter just be a super bad-ass version of an F-22 with double the speed, altitude ceiling, and stealthiness?

Let’s dig in and find out why I speak such blasphemy.

Air Dominance

What is the purpose of a fighter aircraft? Why put a highly trained man/woman and a multi-million dollar advanced machine into the sky, over hostile territory. Why do we do this?

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The answer is fairly obvious of course. We want to dominate or control the airspace, strike targets, and/or provide support to ground forces below. Taking this “air dominance” concept one step further, the fighter jet is there to clear the way, to blaze a path for follow-on aircraft and troops to get in and fight, and be unimpeded in the process.

Oversimplified, the fighter jet is basically a war-fighting Zamboni, keeping the ice fresh so the skaters can take slap shots or flip triple-axels. This is also the essence of the term “fighter sweep”.

Alex Ovechkin drives a Zamboni thru Midtown Manhattan (credit: Washington Capitals)
Alex Ovechkin drives a Zamboni thru Midtown Manhattan (credit: Washington Capitals)

So in the future, what if we could sterilize a block of air and land with some advanced airborne widget? An object, a thing… anything.

Call it a fighter if you want, but this widget would truly dominate the skies and neutralize any surface-to-air threats. It would also be able to deliver precision air-to-mud payloads that ground forces might need, or on intelligence deemed ‘targets.’ If this widget could do all of the above, effectively and accurately, wouldn’t it be accomplishing the mission of the sixth generation fighter? Wouldn’t it have established air, land, and sea dominance?

Yes it would.

Do We Really Need A “Fighter”?

Two years ago, on 30 July 2014, General Mike Hostage, former Commander of Air Combat Command (ACC) discussed the future of airpower at a conference. Specifically he commented about the F-22/F-35 replacement vehicle…the sixth gen fighter. Here’s what he said:

“It isn’t necessarily another single-seat fighter, I’ve been telling the teams that work for me. Don’t start into this process thinking single-engine [or] twin-engine. Don’t be thinking in terms of a platform. If it’s a single button on a keyboard that makes all our adversaries fall to the ground, I’m okay with that.”

In February 2015, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the current ACC Commander was reported discussing the sixth generation fighter system at an airpower symposium. “He and other Air Force leaders emphasize that the 6th-generation system is not just an aircraft. They describe a sweeping review of a system of systems to include a comprehensive look at communications, capabilities from space, standoff and stand-in options under the umbrella of Air Superiority 2030.”

Notice he didn’t use the term ‘fighter.’

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ACC General "Hawk" Carlisle
ACC General “Hawk” Carlisle

Here’s another interesting tidbit that caught my eye.

“The U.S. Air Force has released a new request for a high-powered laser weapon that could be mounted on a next-generation air dominance fighter in the post-2030 era. ‘The emphasis of this effort is to identify potential laser systems that could be integrated into a platform that will provide air dominance in the 2030+ highly contested Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environments,’ the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said in a request for information document” (Majumdar, 2013).

It appears that as of 2013, the AFRL was already working on an advanced laser system for the USAF’s next fighter, one that the USAF had previously requested. Lockheed and DARPA already have an airborne laser on a Learjet sized platform.

So to sum it all up, we have two different ACC commanders, literally the guys that make the bedrock for future capabilities of the USAF, envisioning a very different kind of new ‘fighter.’ One that might be part of a system, and one that can also do cyber-warfare and potentially wield non-kinetic effects as well.

It’s also going to be the baddest Zamboni you ever saw. Anything within its tactical range will clearly be outclassed and neutralized. It might also have friggin’ lasers.

Are Defense Contractors on the Right Track?

Defense contractors have heard the call. Boeing, Northrop and Lockheed have all declared that they are entering the ‘race’ and beginning to conceptualize a platform.

But they are all missing the mark.

They are all hastily drafting up some incredible looking advanced fighter sketches, undoubtedly to whet our appetites, and undoubtedly the appetites of the money-keepers in hopes to gain a little corporate edge and vie for the eventual top spot. Who wouldn’t want the contract for the sixth gen fighter?

But they haven’t thought it through. They haven’t actually heard the top General’s calls. I’m pretty certain that the top Generals aren’t asking for a F-22 on steroids. Let’s face it, the F-35 and it’s 5th generation tech is already outdated. Some reports say China may already have ways of detecting the F-35. Either way, it won’t be long until our best is outclassed.

Lockheed's 6th Gen concept.
Lockheed’s 6th Gen concept.

I’m postulating that the next-generation of air dominance fighter aircraft, may in-fact not look at all like a fighter. Get ready, here comes that pill.

What if you took a hot air balloon, and attached some impressive technology to it?

Speed Is No Longer Life?

Stop for a second and think about this with me. What if our hot air balloon, with it’s incredible technology could be floated above an adversary’s country for example? What if it had an incredible laser array for both offensive and defensive operations?

Any enemy fighters, SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles), or inbound missiles that got close could just be simply blasted away. The Navy is already working on something similar for its ships. On our balloon, hostile aircraft and ground targets could be engaged with precision and speed, and be eliminated.

What if our balloon also had a revolutionary non-kinetic capability and with the drop of General Hostage’s “keyboard button” all our adversaries electrical and communication systems, as well as IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) went off line? This would render them deaf and blind, and make all their machines simply go dumb.

Now, if you had all this, if you had an impressive laser system, and a non-kinetic system, would stealth matter? Would speed matter?

The answer is no.

Our hot air balloon could park itself anywhere with impunity. It could squeegee it’s way into an enemy A2/AD environment and hold that dominance easily.

Our fancy balloon with all it’s firepower and cyberpower would be the ultimate machine for air, land, and sea domination… and sterilization.

I introduce to you…your sixth generation fighter.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company - Palmdale P-791 Airship First Flight 01-31-2006 Photo by Bob Driver
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company – P-791 Airship Photo by Bob Driver

Now a balloon like the one above wouldn’t actually be the platform, you’d need something with a little more speed to get in position quickly. But once there, a slow, non-stealthy platform with directed energy weapons and non-kinetic capabilities would be a formidable machine, and it would satisfy our Zamboni requirements as it sanitized a block of ground and sky for conventional forces.

BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) will be a thing of the past. No longer will aircraft have to engage in airborne ballets of angles and closure rates, tight turns, and lead & lag pursuit. The technology of lasers will solve all of that for us.

It could also be unmanned. Remotely operated with technology used on the battlefield today. Two of our “big three” defense contractors have also openly said that their sixth gen product could be optionally manned. In late July 2016, the Marines also discussed the desire for an optionally manned helicopter in their future fleet. As much as pilots hate to say it, the future is coming fast, and it looks like a future of RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles).

Still not sold on this idea? Still think I’m full of you-know-what?

The Truth About the Future 6th Generation “Fighter”

Here’s what a different source recently said:

“According to service officials, there’s no “silver bullet” or “exquisite” next-generation fighter jet. Instead, the air force will proceed with many parallel technology development efforts, like new propulsion systems, airframes, directed energy weapons and hypersonic missiles, to develop a ‘family of systems.’

Lt Gen James “Mike” Holmes, USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, says his team is moving away from terms like “fighter” and “next-generation” and will instead look at completely different ways of doing air warfare in the future”.

So the sixth generation fighter is going to look and act like a system of unmanned, semi-fast, non-stealthy widgets with directed energy lasers and a formidable non-kinetic cyber weapon suite. Tactics are about to be re-written folks.

It’s going to be one awesome Zamboni. Just maybe…