Six predictions for the sixth-generation fighter

by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
In the Star Trek manner of boldly going where no other aerospace systems developer has gone before, engineers at Raytheon Intelligence & Space went live in an April 13 webinar to publicly predict the future for America’s next generation of fighter aircraft.

While it’s no secret the U.S. Air Force expects to fly a “sixth-generation” fighter in 2030, and is reported to be already flying a secret prototype, little has been known about what will make it superior to existing fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s.

The information gap closed a bit when systems technologists and engineers at Raytheon Technologies Intelligence & Space rolled out their future vision and offered six predictions for next generation airframes built by another company. Raytheon expects to provide the brains for the planes, including systems they believe will deliver technical superiority at greater affordability.

Jennifer Benson, chief engineer for advanced electro-optics, and webinar moderator, said, “We can’t talk about specific platforms, but we can talk about trends.”

The six predictions were:

1. Future fighters will have one system for everything.
Director for Advanced Mission Systems Jason (Tex) Clark said sixth-generation fighters could have a single piece of hardware to perform multiple functions, replacing redundant hardware by using adaptable software that changes between tasks in nanoseconds. “You no longer have a radar, no longer have electronic warfare, no longer have a radio,” Clark said. “Instead, you have multifunction hardware that does it all and can be repurposed very quickly – switching between functions so quickly it seems instantaneous.”

Clark characterized multi-functioning hardware as, “a new world in the way we think of resource management, with software replacing separate systems’ operating functions.”
2. Fighters will become “flying data centers.”
Tomek Rys, business development director for Communications & Airspace Management Systems, said, “On-board computer clusters composed of high-performance, ruggedized processors will effectively put a data center in the sky. These systems will leverage artificial intelligence to turn data into information in real time. The result in a dense data environment will be faster decision-making. “Next-generation multifunction systems will produce orders of magnitude more data than previous systems.”
3. Artificial Intelligence will be the wingman of the future.
Sixth-generation fighter pilots could have help from nearby planes flown autonomously through a concept known as “manned-unmanned teaming” or MUM-T. Panelist Tex Clark said, “We’re realizing underlying artificial intelligence and machine learning can support the idea of a manned aircraft commanding an unmanned team. Today, a flight lead can command four or eight other manned aircraft and expect them to go out and complete the mission on their own. Autonomous behaviors could allow for similar mission-level tasking for aircraft that are not necessarily controlled by a human.”
4. Sixth-generation fighters can be landed on their own.
Marcelo Cavalcanti, director for International Business Development, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, said aircraft will use new hardware and software to land autonomously on aircraft carriers. The technology is already advancing with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. He said, “We are developing algorithms that can use future encrypted signals to safely guide aircraft to a precise landing zone in all-weather and terrain conditions.

Beyond the military applications, Cavalcanti said, “The goal is to have aircraft land autonomously, but it can also serve as guidance to the pilot. I see this technology supporting VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft, including future urban air mobility vehicles.”
5. Digital engineering will make costs clear up front.
Conn Doherty, senior director for Future Aircraft Systems & Technology, predicted digital engineering will create a paradigm shift in the process of open-system architecture and software development, leading to more accurate cost projections and controls.

He said, “An endeavor as big as building a next-generation fighter aircraft is hard to predict. Small glitches and design choices can affect costs and schedules years into the future. A digital thread that connects all data available could help the military predict costs and performance decades more accurately.

“The next level of digital engineering will be interconnectivity throughout the supply chain. We’re working with aircraft makers and our suppliers to develop interconnectivity and two-way digital interfaces. This will dramatically reduce our turnaround times and reduce errors through automation, resulting in better solutions. Connecting in cost models will give us a more precise and accurate understanding of production, operations and maintenance costs for decades to come.”
6. Sixth-generation fighter’s sensors will be swappable
Panel moderator Benson said sensors on aircraft today use common interfaces that allow them to talk to computers on aircraft. This standardization makes sense, considering the range of different and new hardware that may need to be plugged in one day.

“It’s almost plug-and-play for sensors,” Benson said. “Do I pick an electro-optical sensor to do a job? Or do I pick an infrared sensor? Future sensors may be modular enough to swap right on the flight line. We are designing today for that level of commonality and modularity in our sensors.”
Pondering Questions
Open System Architecture?
Tomek: Layered defense system encryption operating a zero -trust environment.

Conn: In prior generations the focus was on per unit costs. We’ll see more flexibility on many costs, Now compare it to making cars. You’ll get a common building block with access to additional features tailored to the customer’s needs and wants. You get flexibility and affordability, and affordability is a priority.

Air Force vs. Navy?
Clark: Both services will evaluate different concepts of vehicles, with cost as an independent variable. There will be diversities, but with foundational consistency across the platforms.
Cavalcanti: The Navy is already working on autonomous landing aircraft on carriers and even assault landing ships. Marcello: Today, sensors on the deck provide guidance to aircraft. It helps the pilots, but you can get the plane on deck without the pilot in an emergency.

Next Gen Life-expectancy?
Conn: Already strides in open architecture show ways to control costs and extend the life cycle, The trend is to adopt new standards and revisions, creating more efficiency and effectiveness.

An International Program?
Cavalcanti: Interoperability between allies makes it a real possibility. Conn: Yes, we’re already making good strides with international partner nations. There is continuing commercial technology leveraging as with 5G process technology. By definition, standards are international, helping to make systems more affordable.

Airspace Access Certification?
Clark: Getting the certificate for artificial intelligence platforms operating in public airspace will come with emerging technology.

Finding Friend vs. Foe?
Tomek: Given the density of combat airspace and civilian traffic, IFF will be an essential system for every platform in the future.

To Dogfight or Not?
Clark: The age-old argument, from F-4s onward through F-22s and F-35s. Do we still need to dogfight? Until now the answer was, ‘we’ve got to have the ability to deal with it in the eventuality.’ “The debate will continue.”

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