The United States has spent years touting the Lockheed Martin sourced F-35 as the most advanced combat aircraft ever devised — which resulted in some ruffled feathers when Lockheed pitched an F-35/F-22 hybrid fighter it claimed would be superior to the incredibly expensive (and perpetually troubled) F-35 program. The thing is, despite being chock-full of new tech, the pace of advancement has already exceeded the pace of F-35 production, and it may soon find itself competing in a world full of more capable aircraft — both in terms of what they can do in the physical and digital spheres of warfare.
Here are some of the more exciting aircraft the U.S. military currently has under development, and when we can expect to see them take to the skies.
The B-21 Raider
The B-21, originally named the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), is slated to become America’s new go-to long-range infiltration bomber. The platform, which bares an aesthetic resemblance to the B-2 spirit, is steaming toward production rather quietly as compared to higher profile aircraft like the aforementioned F-35, especially considering it’s expected to enter operational service by the mid-2020s.
The B-21 has been developed since its very inception to evade and counter advanced anti-aircraft weapons systems. In theory, the new bomber will take off from American airstrips, fly thousands of miles to through heavily contested airspace undetected, achieve its objective, and head home; providing the United States with a means to deliver ordnance quickly, accurately, and with low likelihood of intercept. The bomber will be capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads and will eventually replace both the B-2 Spirit and the supersonic B-1B Lancer.
Little more is known about the secretive bomber program, and that’s exactly how the government wants it. Even the total pricetag is currently classified for fear that a unit-price may give international opponents some idea of what capabilities are being developed.
Unlike the B-21, the SR-72 is still a long way off from any kind of production. Named after the legendary SR-71 Blackbird, which remains the fastest military aircraft ever built despite being retired nearly two decades ago, the SR-72 aims to use advanced scramjet propulsion to achieve hypersonic speeds — currently, only some ballistic missile platforms are capable of such a feat.
Unlike the Blackbird however, the SR-72 is being developed as a UAV — which makes sense, as a pilot may find themselves struggling to function during maneuvers while traveling at sustained speeds in excess of Mach 5. Little is known about the expectations of this aircraft beyond it likely becoming the first ever hypersonic combat aircraft. Defense experts claim hypersonic aircraft will be as disruptive a technology as stealth was in the latter half of the 20th century, as anti-aircraft defenses currently in use are simply not suited to tracking and intercepting such fast moving objects.
Immense speed combined with matured stealth technology will likely make the SR-72 a valuable long range strike platform, as well as a reconnaissance flyer like its SR-71 forefathers. If the SR-72 makes it into production, it’s unlikely to be flying in combat zones until well into the 2030s.
Sixth Generation Fighters
America has led the way into the fifth generation of fighter platforms with both the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but plans have been underway since 2012 to field an even more advanced and capable air superiority platform in the coming years. The F-35 famously relies on long distance tracking and identification of threats with advanced weapons systems that can engage with potentially more capable fighters from distances greater than would be allowed in previous fighter platforms, but few can argue that the F-35 is the best plane in the skies when it comes to a good old-fashioned dog fight (though some claim dog fights are just that: old-fashioned).
The F-22, China’s J-20, and even some fourth generation fighters like Russia and China’s Su-35 have all been touted as more capable air-to-air platforms, which makes sense, as the F-35 was developed in many ways to serve as a jack of all combat trades, but a master of very few. As international competitors continue to field advanced air frames like Russia’s Su-57 and China’s forthcoming J-31, America’s lead in the battlefield of the skies will continue to diminish, and that’s where the new fighters will come into play.
Fifth generation fighters were the first to incorporate stealth technology into their design and include active scanning radar arrays and engines that can sustain supersonic flight without the use of afterburners — but the qualifications for a “6th generation” fighter have yet to be formalized. It’s likely that increasing weapons payload capacity without compromising stealth and an increased operational range will be primary among considerations however, as hypersonic anti-ship missiles shift the way in which America’s aircraft carriers are able to operate in contested spaced.
Carried based UCAVs
The U.S. Navy recently did away with proposals for an armed, carrier based unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) in favor of the MQ-25 Stingray program, which aims to provide carriers with drone refuelers to extend the operational ranges of F-35Cs and forthcoming Block III Super Hornets, but no one within the aviation community expects the Navy to give up on the concept. Systems like the X-47B shown above, as well as each of the MQ-25 aircraft proposals to the Navy all have some level of combat capabilities built into their designs, even if those designs aren’t being executed upon in favor of the Navy’s short-term fueling needs.
Like other unmanned aircraft, Navy UCAVs will provide combat capabilities without putting pilots directly into harms way, but more importantly, they can serve as a significant bolster to manned aircraft like the F-35. UCAVs can accompany manned aircraft in hostile territory, intercepting inbound fire, assisting in the completion of objectives, and if need be, sacrificing themselves to save the manned “parent” aircraft networking the joint formation of jets and drones.
Old planes with new technology
While there are a number of advanced combat drones in development, some of the most promising programs aim to recycle existing air frames into a new kind of asset. Loyal Wingman, for instance, is a program under development with the U.S. Air Force to convert legacy F-16s into fully functional combat drones. Just like the UCAVs above, Loyal Wingman would allow an F-35 to take to the skies accompanied by a formation of dated, but still quite capable early generation fighters functioning as drones. This alleviates the need to develop new aircraft, build them, and get a support infrastructure into place… because it all already exists. The only difference would be the method of aircraft control and, of course, that there would be no pilot in the cockpit.
Feature image courtesy of Northrop Grumman