The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, one of the branch’s primary research and development arms, released a short video this month depicted what it believes the future of aerial combat will look like by the end of the coming decade, and if the platforms depicted come to fruition, that future looks pretty exciting.
The nearly five minute video opens with a brief rundown of how we got to where we are today, including mentions of the Wright Brothers and experimental supersonic aircraft as a means to demonstrate the important role hard-nosed science has played in making America the dominant aerial force that it is today. However, the video gets particularly interesting at around the three-minute mark, when talk about the past gives way to conjecture about the future.
The video shows a rendering of drone aircraft flying in a close formation with an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and although the rendering isn’t accompanied by narration, the visuals tell an interesting story.
The pilot of the F-35 appears to be interacting with a holographic face, disembodied and floating in the cockpit, though it seems likely that this face would actually be projected onto the pilot’s heads up display inside his helmet, rather than floating like an actual hologram as depicted in the video. He appears to issue commands to the drone flying in his formation via this interface, who break off from formation and launch munitions at a nearby target.
Real time monitoring of the pilot’s condition as he manages the drone formation under his command is then relayed back to a command element, which eases the transition to another aircraft, elsewhere in the world, using a humanoid robot to help deploy a drone swarm. Then, a B-2 Spirit drops what appears to be a missile armed with the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) – a weapons platform that uses microwaves to produce an electromagnetic pulse to disable any electronics within its range.
Finally, the video closes with what could likely be the sixth generation fighter that will one day replace the F-35 as America’s air platform of choice, using a laser weapon to destroy an enemy aircraft.
In just over a minute, the Air Force showed enough new technology to fill an entire textbook, but what’s most impressive about the sizzle reel at the end of this new video is how close many of these programs are to being a reality. Drone swarms have already seen limited testing, and we’re likely not far off from seeing unmanned wingmen flying alongside advanced aircraft like the F-35 in future combat missions. The Navy already has work underway on using drones to refuel combat aircraft, and other drone platforms have been armed for years. Laser weapons have also already found their way into military applications like aircraft carriers.
Even the sixth generation manned fighter depicted at the conclusion of the video has already started working its way out of the drawing board stage and into development – meaning as much as these applications look like science fiction, there’s a very real possibility that warfare in 2030 could actually look quite a bit like this video depicts.
And if that’s the case, we’re all in for one hell of a show.
Watch the video below:
Images courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
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