In October of 2012, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics presented a document outlining the need and justification to start development of a 6th Generation fighter aircraft to replace the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor. As other countries like Russia, India, and China are developing and testing their answer to the United States’ 5th-Generation capabilities, America is already looking down the road.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began a study in early 2013 to find ways to bridge the gap between U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy capability requirements, as both services are looking to stay one step ahead of potential adversaries in the realm of air dominance. Based on what we’ve seen, the services expect to field a 6th-Generation fighter aircraft in the mid to late 2020s.

This year’s budget request from the Department of Defense has studies that allude to an acquisition program in Fiscal Year 2018. The DoD has also stated funding streams for the initial 6th-Generation fighter development would appear in FY 2016.

An artist rendering of Boeing's 6th-Generation fighter aircraft concept.
An artist rendering of Boeing’s 6th-Generation fighter aircraft concept. (Courtesy of Boeing Defense)

DARPA will be leading the charge for the prototypes, as they–not surprisingly–have already been researching concepts to be employed aboard a 6th-Generation fighter for some time. Although the requirements are closely-held, and regardless of service, it’s reasonable to deduce the next-generation of fighters must have long “legs” (range), carry a lot (and wide variety) of weaponry, and be survivable in the threat environments of tomorrow.

The aircraft is also to be equipped with laser weapons, which make the infrared signature a challenge. Heat dissipation from the lasers is going to be an issue–especially when coupled with the exhaust plume from the aircraft’s engine(s). That leads to something else we can reasonably expect: these 6th-generation fighter designs will probably be pretty large compared to today’s aircraft. All of those factors will need to be dealt with appropriately in order for the jet to maintain a stealthy or “low observable” profile.

It will be very interesting to see how this program develops, and you can bet we’ll be keeping a close eye on it as it moves along. In the mean time, let your imagination wander!

(Featured photo courtesy of Northrop-Grumman, a recently-released artist rendering of their 6th-Generation fighter concept)