The new millennium brought with it a new generation of fighter aircraft. The progress between the fourth and the fifth generations was primarily a leap in information technology, but the incorporation of stealth features and cutting down Radar cross section also marked the new generation of fighters.
While the number of models that can be described as fifth-generation fighter is rather limited and with relatively few more in development right now, already the most advanced defence complexes of the world are gearing up for the next aircraft: the sixth generation aircraft. As this next generation of aircraft is being developed, it seemed that many countries will entirely forgo the development of fifth in favour of the sixth generation. This article will take a look at the western (European, American and Japanese) developments that are aiming for this next generation of air dominance.
SCAF / FCAS
FCAS is one of the most ambitious European defence programmes of the century
Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space
The origins of the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) or Système de combat aérien du futur (SCAF) lie in a Letter of Intent (LoI) agreement signed in 1998, in which France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and Sweden aimed at “establishing a co-operative framework to facilitate the restructuring of European defence industry.” This agreement resulted in the European Technology Acquisition Program, which was started in November 2001, when the ministers of defence of the six nations signed a memorandum of understanding underlining the importance of preparing for future fighter systems. By 2011, this program had launched 15 Technology Development Programs (TPDs) worth 118 million Euro, among them there were projects to develop a high bandwidth communications link and manufacturing of low observable materials.
In November 2014, the British and French Governments awarded Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems with a first feasibility study contract for a future combat drone. The two industrialists were given 250 million Euro and two years to design and define the specifics of this “Future Combat Air System.” The two prime contractors were to work with engine manufacturers Safran and Rolls Royce, as well as electronics groups Thales and Selex ES. Both companies have had some experience in the development of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV): the nEUROn launched by Dassault in 2005 in partnership with Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and Spain, which had been flying since December 2012; and BAE’s Taranis, which had been undergoing tests since April 2013. While both France and the UK had still declared their commitment to the joint project at a summit in 2016, no further development was confirmed in January 2018 and by 2019 the program was at a standstill.
While the cross-channel project petered out, the Franco-German cooperation on the same topic had begun in earnest. In July 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron announced at a Franco-German Council of Ministers meeting in Paris their intention to pursue the joint development of several weapons systems, including a European air combat system, under the leadership of both countries. In April of the following year, during the ILA exhibition in Berlin, Airbus and Dassault signed an initial agreement to cooperate, followed the very next day by a German and a French Generals signing the High Level Common Operational Requirements Document. This document confirmed that SCAF was to be a ‘System of Systems’ of manned or optionally manned command platform (Command Fighter Advanced or New Generation Fighter (NGF)) and an unmanned component (Remote Carriers).
In February 2019, French and German defence ministers Ursula von der Leyen and Florence Parly announced a contract award to Airbus and Dassault Aviation for a Joint Concept Study (JCS), authorizing the contractor duo to come up with more concrete concepts for the future weapon’s main elements. With a volume of 65 million Euros, the contract was supposed to run for two years and lay the groundwork for demonstrator programs to be launched at the Paris Air Show in June the same year. The year 2019 also saw Spain formally join the program, as the Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles signed her country onto the program in June.
In December of that same year, German MTU Aero Engines and French Safran settled the details concerning their eye-level partnership to develop the engine of the next-generation European fighter aircraft NGF. In February, the two companies had signed a letter of intent specifying that Safran would take the lead in engine design and integration, and MTU Aero Engines would take the lead in engine services. The two partners also agreed on the foundation of a 50/50 joint venture that would be incorporated by the end of 2021 to manage the development, production, and after-sales support activities of the new engine that will power the next-generation fighter aircraft (NGF).
Despite this, in February 2021, French, German, and Spanish officials reached an impasse. The three countries disagreed over intellectual property rights and work shares. Before Spain has joined the project, the workload had been split 50/50 between Airbus and Dassault. But with Spain also being represented by Airbus in the project, the workload distribution had to be renegotiated. By the April 2, the parties came to an agreement, although at the time Airbus still declined commentaries. In the following month, the partners reached an agreement to develop a demonstrator fighter aircraft by 2027.
Despite these difficulties, on the August 30, current year, a trilateral agreement was signed in Paris, to begin a preliminary development phase for a lead plane under the SCAF program. The agreement followed the approval of a 4.5 billion Euro investment through 2027 by the German Parliament earlier in June. The trilateral agreement entailed phases 1B and 2, thus covering research and development activities and the construction of an initial, flyable prototype.
It seems that at this point, the previously described dispute between the main contractors Dassault and Airbus had not been resolved, as the German Defence Ministry tweeted: “Now it’s industry’s turn – come to an agreement.”
Tempest / FCAS
We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way
Gavin Williamson, UK Defence Secretary
As mentioned before, the Franco-British cooperation in developing a new fighter was slowing down by 2018. Despite this, in July of the same year, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled a concept model of a next generation fighter jet at the Farnborough International Airshow. This aircraft was to be part of the stated goals of the Defence Ministry’s Combat Air Strategy, which called for an implementation of Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative, established by the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. In the same statement, it was announced that the so-called Team Tempest would be comprised of BAE Systems tasked with advanced combat air systems and integration; Rolls-Royce, with advanced power and propulsion systems; Leonardo, with sensors, electronics, and avionics; and MBDA, with advanced weapons. Early decisions around how to acquire the capability were to be confirmed by the end of 2020, before final investment decisions would be made by 2025. The aim was then for a next generation platform to have operational capability by 2035.
Only a few days later, the Swedish defence ministry signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to explore ways of jointly developing sixth-generation air combat technologies. Sweden’s Saab hoped to transfer some of its expertise on the development to its Gripen E fighter, but at the time there was no definitive signing of Saab into Team Tempest.
In September 2019 at DSEI, the members of Team Tempest together with key Italian Industry players (Leonardo Italy, Elettronica, Avio Aero, and MBDA Italy) announced their intent to partner on the Tempest program by signing a Statement of Intent (SoI). This statement would see the parties work together to define an innovative concept and partnership model which was to include knowledge sharing, product definition, and technology development for the joint development of future combat air systems. A joint government feasibility study also concluded that the UK and Italy were natural Combat Air partners, with both Air Forces operating the same mixed fleet of Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 aircraft.
On December 21, 2020, Italian Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini, UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace, and Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist signed a trilateral MoU on the development of Tempest, “the general principles for co-operation on an equal basis between the three countries comprising all activities including research, development, and joint concepting necessary for governments.”
In July 2021, the UK MoD awarded BAE Systems a contract worth approximately £250 million, marking the official start of the program’s concept and assessment phase. A month later, Italy similarly freed up funds of the project: 20 million Euros each year from 2021 to 2023. Rome had also defined the project as one of its ‘flagships’, which were to have a guaranteed funding stream, as involving international cooperation, a high level of technology, and Italian work share.
DSEI 2021 also saw the showcasing of a model of a modified Boeing 757, nicknamed Excalibur. It is to serve as a test bed for a sixth-generation fighter, with a representative Tempest cockpit installed inside the fuselage. The United States had pioneered this sort of test bed for its F-22 and F-35 programs, making Excalibur the first non-US example of such an experimental airplane.
Based on previous discussions, the option of ‘developing derivatives of existing fighters’ cannot be a candidate from the perspective of a Japan-led development, and the MoD has come to the conclusion that we will develop a new model
Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Agency of the Japanese Ministry of Defence
In 2010, the Japanese MoD released a study on its vision of a future fighter development, which suggested development of a next generation fighter as a successor to the Mitsubishi F-2. The aircraft envisioned in this document, dubbed the i³ Fighter, is set to be realised within 20 years and features integrated fire control, next generation avionics and engine technology, and improved stealth. Within 30 to 40 years, the concept should also feature directed energy weaponry and a combat cloud for fighting in cooperation with UCAVs.
In the wake of not receiving the American F-22 Raptor, Tokyo set out to develop its own fifth-generation fighter, eventually resulting in the Mitsubishi Advanced Technology Demonstrator – X (ATD-X) Shinshin (心神). After reportedly having spent ¥39.4 billion ($332 million) on the project, Japan unveiled its first stealth aircraft in January 2016, making its maiden flight in April of the same year. At the time, this made Japan the fourth nation in the world to field a domestically produced stealth aircraft.
Despite these developments, Japanese MoD in October 2018 decided to develop a new, sixth-generation aircraft, after proposals by Boeing (for an F-15 based fighter), Lockheed Martin (for a F-22/F-35 hybrid), and BAE Systems (for the Eurofighter Typhoon) failed to meet Japan’s expectations regarding costs and capabilities. Further developments of the ATD-X were similarly cancelled. In February 2019, Japanese MoD announced that it would pursue a “Japan-led” program to develop a next-generation fighter aircraft, though open to cooperation with outside partners. The project was to begin phasing out the Mitsubishi F-2 by the 2030’s.
In April 2020, the MoD’s Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Agency (ATLA) had established a dedicated team to develop the next generation fighter, which by now has been named F-X (but will likely enter service as the F-3). By December 2020, it was announced that Lockheed Martin was to support the prime contractors, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), in developing the aircraft. The following month, it became clear that F-X would also feature artificial intelligence, developed by ATLA and earmarked at 2.5 billion yen ($24.3 million), while Subaru Corporation was assigned to develop the aircraft’s remote and flight control systems. In June 2021, the Japanese government announced that it had partnered with the UK to jointly develop new engine technologies that could be applied by both the London-led FCAS program and its own F-X.
US Navy NGAD (F/A-XX)
We truly see NGAD as more than just a single aircraft. We believe that as manned-unmanned teaming comes online, we will integrate those aspects of manned and unmanned teaming into that
Rear Adm. Gregory Harris, Air Warfare Directorate of the Chief of Naval Operation
The US Navy first defined the requirements for a sixth-generation aircraft as early as in 2008. By January 2016, the service began its requirements study for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program that could produce a family of NGAD systems to replace the capability of Super Hornets and the electronic attack EA-18-G Growler in the 2030s. There had been speculations over a joint exploration and analysis of alternatives (AoA) for the following on to Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter, but this possibility was discarded by 2016. The analysis efforts were completed by July 2019.
In 2020, the Navy created a program office for the NGAD initiative. With the fiscal year 2021 being the last in which the Navy planned to acquire more F/A-18s, it went on to portion $4.5 billion across its five-year budget plan and put the funds toward the NGAD effort. In March 2021, it was announced that the said successor would still “most likely be manned,” but that the NGAD program would include a mix of both manned and unmanned platforms.
As of late March 2021, the NGAD program was still in the ‘concept refinement phase’, in which the Navy work with the industry to determine the latest technology and whether it could pursue an unmanned fighter aircraft. Despite the earlier break with the Air Force’s program, the Navy is working with the Air Force during this stage, as the services are expected to have different air frames, while the systems inside the platforms would be similar.
US Air Force NGAD (F-XX)
We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it
Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics
The US Air Force’s NGAD program was initiated in the early 2010s to develop a 2030s air superiority system. The United States’ DoD had mentioned its interest in building a new ‘X-plane’ prototype as far back as 2014, and on September 15, 2020, the Air Force announced that it had flown a full-scale flight demonstrator as part of the NGAD program. The Air Force has said that NGAD exists to examine five major technologies that are likely to appear on the next generation aircraft, but has kept secret what four of those technologies are.
The one acknowledged NGAD-related technology is propulsion, with other likely candidates being new forms of stealth, advanced weapons, including directed energy and thermal management to deal with increased heat output of modern and more powerful engines. The Air Force’s NGAD is budgeted at $9 billion from 2019 through 2025. The FY 2021 budget is $1 billion, with a request of $1.5 billion for FY 2022.
According to the Air Force’s biennial 2021 report for acquisition, “the program uses a non-traditional acquisition approach to avoid traditional monolithic program schedules and exorbitant life-cycle sustainment costs. This strategy, called the Digital Century Series approach, creates a realistic business case for industry to adopt commercial best practices for key design activities – before a part is even manufactured.” The 2020 demonstrator was probably constructed by Lockheed Martin. While much of the details about the aircraft is shrouded in secrecy, it is extremely likely that it will also be a system-of-systems and will operate with the assistance of ‘loyal-wingman’ type drones.
With the cost of newer, more advanced models of aircraft ever increasing, we can see a definite trend towards networked developments. While joint development between European manufacturers is nothing new, dating back at least as far as the venerable Cold War warrior Tornado, the Franco-German-Spanish and the British-Italian-Swedish efforts both have common roots. Given the towering costs for these projects, it is far from unlikely that these projects could merge in the future.
At the same time, within one of these projects, SCAF, cracks can already be seen between manufacturers over workload and intellectual properties. So, while a merger may lead to deflate increasingly ballooning budgets and create synergies rather than parallel developments, disputes between manufacturers can also lead to crippling slowdowns in development and later production. Given that fifth generation fighter planes are non-existent in Europe (and even the multirole F-35 is rather a scarce sight), such slowdowns would make Europe definitely loose a competitive edge. Especially with its nearest competitor, Russia, having developed and increasingly fielding such an aircraft. An interesting development is therefore the cooperation between Team Tempest and Japan’s MHI, which by itself is much unlike the European cooperation, bordering on tradition for bigger projects.
The outlined developments also make clear what will be the hallmarks of the sixth generation aircraft: All the above projects are not merely a single weapons platform, but rather systems of systems. The pilot of these new aircraft (and it should be said that he may not even exist, as some projects are already described as manned optionally) will be backed up not only by sensors and analyses outside his airframe, but also, more directly, by unmanned drones and artificial intelligence, even in his own aircraft.
Predictably, stealth remains a big factor in the development of these systems, though the usage of more disposable drones seems to lighten the emphasis on relying on stealth to assure persistence in a highly contested environment. A similar trend can be seen regarding manoeuvrability: while of course till of great importance, the sheer distance of the engagements enabled by ‘loyal-wingman’ type drones would make this less of a concern than in previous generations. But while drones are already an established aspect of modern warfighting, many of these projects are including research into directed energy weapons, which, discounting some prototypical experiments, would be a novum in aerial combat.
So, while secrecy still shrouds many of exact details of these new weapons systems, the next generation fighters seem to be truly worthy of their name.
Author: Kevin Klemann
©New Defence Order. Strategy №1 (72) 2022