So What Is a 6th-Generation Fighter Jet?

Left of Boom Episode 18: So What Is a 6th-Generation Fighter Jet?
Left of Boom Episode 18: So What Is a 6th-Generation Fighter Jet?

While the U.S. military's fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets are still rolling off the production line and deploying across the globe, work has already begun on a futuristic 6th-generation fighter -- an aircraft that may have increased stealth, drone companions, boosted artificial intelligence and even the ability to heal itself when damaged.

Richard Aboulafia from the Teal Group breaks down what we can expect from a 6th-gen fighter jet.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Stealth Aircraft



Fighter Jets


Loyal Wingman

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. Late last year, a top Air Force official acknowledged that the service had secretly built and flown a prototype for a future fighter jet. Even as the US military continues to produce its premier fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, speculation abounds about what comes next. At least a dozen countries are now at some phase of work developing a sixth-generation fighter -- even though experts continue to debate exactly what "sixth generation" means. A few things seem clear: The plane of the future will be smarter and get more help from drones, and it will still have a pilot in the cockpit. To give us more insights into the future of fighter warfare. We're joined by Richard Aboulafia, vice president for Analysis with the Teal Group. He's one of the leading voices on military aircraft and his columns appear regularly in Aviation Week and Richard Aboulafia, welcome to the show.

Richard Aboulafia 1:01

Great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:03

So let's start with a very basic question. I think a lot of people have heard of fourth-generation, fifth-generation, and now sixth-generation fighter aircraft. Can you walk through what are the defining characteristics of a sixth-gen fighter? And also what the key characteristics of previous advanced generations are?

Richard Aboulafia 1:22

Well, I'll let you know when we get there. Right. I mean, it's, you know, we're sort of loosely defining generations of combat aircraft designed over the years. And, you know, there have been so many, I guess, tranch breaks, if you will, between generations, and the first generation wasn't even supersonic at the end of the day, you know, so you look at what's arrived in terms of key enablers and technology over the years. Whether it's accurate radars capable of firing beyond visual range, air-to-air missiles, better electronic warfare systems, you know, radars, graduating to airborne, electronically scanned-array antenna, there have been so many. Fifth generation, you know, you can broadly characterize as having some degree of stealth, maybe not all aspects stealth, but low observability, integrated sensor fusion that allows pilots to have a far better sense of what's happening around them in the battlefield. Fully integrated EW systems, of course, that respond to an array of threats. And several other enablers, those are the key ones. It's it's sort of a, almost a way of defining the marketplace to a certain extent. And, and as a consequence, it's it's sort of a curiosity, the only production fifth-generation planes ever were the F 22, and F-35. Everything else was fourth-generation. But given a number of the building blocks and subsystems associated with fifth-generation, to be called generation 4.5, which, of course, further blurs the lines.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:08

If I were Michael Scott, asking for, "tell it to me like I'm five," then you had to kind of give a one sentence 4th, 5th, 6th, how would you boil it down?

Richard Aboulafia 3:22

There have been trenches of technology that had been introduced, and the fifth is characterized that most notably by low observability. And by having a lot of data, a lot of offboard and onboard sensors, all feeding data to the pilot, to give him or her a really clear picture of the threat environment battlefield.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:43

Got it. That's helpful. Thank you. So I think I have seen that 12 countries have now announced that they are working on developing a sixth-generation fighter, including some of our favorite great power competition rivals and friends. Which nations do you think are the farthest along in development at this point? And what does that progress that they're making look like?

Richard Aboulafia 4:07

Well, you know, there are big questions about what constitutes that sixth generation. And, you know, first of all, you have to start with the fifth generation as your fundamental, your primary building block. That means, of course, the U.S. is going to have this enormous advantage, because that's the only country that's ever really built a true fifth-generation plane. Now, what constitutes sixth generation other than everything in the fifth generation that people didn't build, because they only built generation 4 or generation 4.5. On top of that, you know, probably one of the biggest enabler is going to be just a hyper-connectivity, just everything being connected. There are systems, other nodes in the battlefield, other sensors offboard onboard, all being connected with with just hyper-fast speeds, that will be a key part of it. Another thing that's emerging as very desirable is, basically, greater degrees of man-machine teaming. And that means Loyal Wingman-type systems. And the ability for the pilot to control adjunct systems around him or her. That means Skyborg, Loyal Wingman, or what airpower teaming Australia, one of the systems that's being set up. And that's going to be a key enabling technology because it also leverages artificial intelligence. You know, one pilot can't do a whole lot with a with a bunch of adjunct systems. Unless, of course, those hydraulic systems are given a level of warfighting autonomy. So artificial intelligence is going to be key there. One key aspect of sixth-gen might be sort of a way of rectifying the limits of the primary fifth-generation plan. The F-35 in terms of sensor fusion was absolutely brilliant. In terms of stealth, pretty impressive achievement, relative to the mission. But as an air vehicle, kind of underwhelming, relative to the F-22. The joke was, the F-22 is an amazing air vehicle in search of a good mission equipment package. And the F-35 is an amazing mission equipment package in search of a good air vehicle. You know, so if you could just reconcile the traditional metrics of time to climb, speed, payload, range, all those other things with fifth-gen mission equipment, maybe that sixth generation really depends on your definition.

Hope Hodge Seck 6:31

That's interesting. Well, there's so much to unpack there. And so I'm going to take it piece by piece, but let's talk about stealth. First of all, there's lots of misconceptions about it -- what is and isn't stealthy, especially as regards to the F=35. Can you provide kind of a basic primer and talk about what stealth is, how to understand it, and what stealth characteristics we might see on a sixth-gen platform?

Richard Aboulafia 6:55

Yeah, and there has been an awful lot of misunderstandings about stealth, obviously. To a great majority of the public, it's seen as a Romulan cloaking device, including the legendary Donald Trump moment where he says how stealth meants it can't be seen, you know, great moment in, in political-aerospace relations. In reality it just means that you want to be seen second. That's what it comes down to. And, of course, the traditional pattern of air-to-air combat, that means that frontal stealth is most important for a fighter. You might be using your fighter to penetrate enemy airspace for a strike mission, in which case, all-aspect stealth would be nice, but it's not the priority, right, the priority is being seen second, so you get your first shot, and you get to kill the other person before they kill you. Now, when it comes to penetrating stealth, like, for example, in the B-21, the follow-on to the B-2 bomber, all-aspects stealth is far more important, because that is not a plane that'll be shooting at other planes. That's a plane that will be penetrating into the airspace to you know, take out some high-value target. But with fighters, stealth, low observability. That's more frontal, and it means being seen second, and it can show up in terms of the shape of the airframe, it can show up in terms of emissions. You know, there are many different metrics by which we gauge stealth.

Hope Hodge Seck 8:29

So you mentioned Loyal Wingman, what is the main idea behind that concept? And in the future we foresee, well, all manned fighters have an unmanned sidekick, like an R2-D2?

Richard Aboulafia 8:42

Well, you know, is easy to overstate the pace at which flamboyant and impressive new technologies get developed, right? History tells us that, you know, oh, five to 10 years, it'll all be different. Most likely, this kind of technology is a 2040 story, maybe even 2050. But the potential is very impressive. And it's it's exactly what it sounds like, you know, the ability to have helper drones that are also shooting and sensing and whatever else that work with you. And obviously, that hugely rectifies quantitative disadvantage in some theaters. Read the Pacific, right? You know, I mean, obviously, deployability is a huge issue, you can only have a couple of carriers and a couple air bases. And if you're in a conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, and that's their geographical home turf, you'd better have the ability to make your individual platforms more effective than their numbers would indicate. And historically, that's been better is our assets like AWACS or tankers, and now that's a bit of a concern because one priority for the Chinese has been developing systems that will target those enabling assets. Hence the J-20. With its, you know, beyond visual range missile, that plane only exists as a way of taking out tankers and AWACS, really. So how do you do it? Well, you come up with these adjunct drones that work closely with the pilot, but increasingly have their own level of autonomy, thanks to artificial intelligence. And there are so many interesting new air vehicle concepts and systems, no one really knows what the ideal Loyal Wingman air vehicle looks like. And they could be bigger, they could be smaller, no one knows how to get deployed. I mean, that's a key thing, you're not going to carry them, maybe we'll develop a new air vehicle that can carry them, but most likely there'll be deployed on rails or something from the ground or maybe from a carrier, who knows? That part of the that technology is unreal.

Hope Hodge Seck 10:58

I believe it was a former Navy secretary who said some time ago that the F-35 would be the last manned fighter jet. I'm not hearing a lot of discussion about the sixth-gen fighter as an unmanned-only option.

Richard Aboulafia 11:09

You know, the it's I'm sorry, sorry to interrupt. But I just met my favorite point. We know that the last manned fighter was the English Electric Lightning of 1957. Because a British government white paper told us so.

Hope Hodge Seck 11:27

So why are piloted fighter jets still the future?

Richard Aboulafia 11:32

Yeah, great question. That's because the real utility of a combat aircraft platform, and this will hopefully stay that way, is in operations other than war. You know, you think, oh, fighters have been used for many decades now, the majority of missions have been, you know, fire-zone enforcement, civil war intervention, maritime zone enforcement, so many different ways other than an outright shooting war. And, you know, if it's the 38th parallel, and both sides start shooting, and all hell breaks loose ... yeah, you don't want any people there. But if you're intervening in a in some proxy conflict, or trying to understand what a potential adversary is doing with their forces in a third-party country, and trying to enforce a no-fly zone, or something like that, it's all about the Mk-1 human eyeball. There's no way you can overcome the inherent limitations on remote sensors, latency, breadth of vision, and then there's just the, you know, accountability aspect. I mean, if you do decide that it's an enemy vehicle, and it turns out to be a school bus, you know, frankly, that quick judgment, that instant split second, it should come down to a person, just from the standpoint of human accountability.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:59

So you're saying there's no substitute now, or there's no substitute ever, like, technology just hasn't gotten there yet.

Richard Aboulafia 13:07

Well we're gonna find out. I mean, you know, we've made tremendous progress in the sort of breadth of view hat sensors can provide, that could be one day that smart skins really do give you a true God's-eye view of the battlefield, which is now now attainable with that, yeah, that human eye. And it could be that the problems of latency will be overcome, so that instant transmission will be permissible. And then on top of that, we'll have encryption capabilities that remove any possibility of disruption. If all of those technologies are brought to bear then yeah, you know, you could eventually get the human out of the loop. But oh, you know, it's gonna take a while.

Hope Hodge Seck 13:49

I heard some reporting out there not that long ago about how the sixth-gen fighter could be self-regenerating, or have a self-regenerating coating. Can you break down what exactly that means and what it could look like?

Richard Aboulafia 14:01

I think it means different things. From a stealth standpoint, coatings are a big chunk of the low observability. As you know, if you've been to Holloman Air Force Base, you know, I haven't had the pleasure, but I know it's, it's an elaborate treatment. You know, regeneration could take the form of coatings that can somehow heal up from battle damage or just natural, you know, weather damage or, or maritime damage or whatever else. Or it could be something more elaborate, where, you know, if you lose part of one subsystem, other parts of that subsystem cover for it. You know, I think it all falls into the heading of resiliency, and how you avoid one single point of failure, destroying the platform or disrupting a mission.

Hope Hodge Seck 14:57

So I'm aware that the Air Force and the Navy have been looking ahead to the next generation for some years now. There's been some reporting recently about this flight test shrouded in mystery that the Air Force just did the Navy's got, I think they call it the FA-XX. Can you talk about the status of efforts within both services, from where you stand, what you've been able to track?

Richard Aboulafia 15:20

Yeah, you know, FA-XX, it's easy to be cynical about it. Because at this point, it's not really clear that the Navy can purchase enough aircraft in sufficient numbers to justify its own purely bespoke platform. And that's why it's become an all-Super Hornet fleet. Basically, they were able back in the 70s, to adapt what was effectively an Air Force, lightweight or fighter competition plane. The YF-17, for naval purposes, everything they've done since has either died of age, the F-14D program, for example, great plane, but it was the last of its type and very expensive, or just died, because they simply didn't have the budget bandwidth or the technological path. So A-12, Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter, all of these things, as a result, you know, 50 years later, they still could be dependent upon the same platform. Will they be able to design a clean sheet replacement? It's it's very easy to be cynical, it's very easy for them to say, imagine them saying, you know, what, FA-XX looks like, Super-Super Hornet. You know, as many technological additions put into the same platform that we become dependent upon, it's it's hard to imagine what they would do otherwise, frankly. The Air Force is more interesting. And of course, you know, the outcome of what the Air Force does, the Navy is going to be looking at that maybe that'll be adaptable, the way the FA-18 was adaptable from the YF-17. And here, it's it's sort of interesting, at one point, the sort of perfect answer was for something relatively short-term, which was, what if we took something that looked a lot like an F-22, and gave it something that was a lot like the F-35 mission equipment package and engines. And that would have been a short-term fix that seemed, they seemed to move away from that. Another possibility is just next generation F-22. Not an F-22, but something in that size class, something with a kind of super-cruise capability. Super-cruise being the ability to go supersonicly without afterburner, a key enabling technology on the F 22. What if we just did that? And then there's the other possibility, which is now being discussed, I think it's been sort of the dominant vision for some time. What about a bigger platform? What about something that is truly adapted for the Pacific environment? And oh, by the way, also really good for that Loyal Wingman approach, because you've got one big central platform with a lot of range and payload. And, you know, the capability of working with these adjunct droid systems. I think that's probably, you know, could it even be an adaptation to the B-21. You know, it's an outlier as a concept, but you can't rule it out. It could be something in that class, but most likely, you know, clean sheet design. It could be, you know, in short, or returned to the sort of F-111 size philosophy that the Air Force, you know, really came to appreciate sometime in the 80s. Other than that, it's hard to see, you know, just this morning, General CQ Brown mentioned that they might be looking at a next generation F-16, which, of course, is a lightweight multi-role fighter, perhaps one that was somewhat less expensive, and plus a jack-of-all trades, and the F-35. So the future is really unwritten.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:54

You talked about an F-111 size theory, I have to say that, that's Greek to me. Can you talk about what that is?

Richard Aboulafia 19:02

Yeah, back in the 60s, there was a program called TFX. And it was meant to create a large swing-wing multi-role fighter for everybody. And predictably, it did not, there have been many comparisons between the F-35 and the TFX. But TFX at its time was scandalous, massive cost overrun, there was just a lot of rebellion against it. And the naval version predictably died. Many naval adaptations do, but it also produced this heavyweight, long-range platform that everyone thought, Oh, God, what a white elephant. But in the 80s, it became the system that would be deployed to areas of crisis because it could do an awful lot, and it could go very far with a lot of ordinance and was still a fighter. Oh, my goodness, you know, the combination of all of that hadn't really been done with that level of technology and it soldiered on, you know, well into the 90s. Matter of fact, Australia didn't retire their F-111 fleet till the early 2000s, I believe, and to this day, they still regret having to leave that capability behind, that enormous range and payload capability. And given the greater emphasis on the Pacific theater, and of course, China as a potential adversary, something in that size and capability class might look appealing again.

Hope Hodge Seck 20:28

Are there any elements of fighter warfare that you think we'll never see again? I mean, I've covered the Navy and Marine Corps for a long time, there's a lot of talk about how beach landings are a fixture of the past that we'll never quite be able to lose the romance with, so they still train for them. But are there any comparisons in fighter warfare?

Richard Aboulafia 20:50

There are certainly people out there who think that the concept of close-air support for a supersonic fighter is not relevant. And that's why there should be dedicated close-air support planes like the A-10, for example. It's hard to say whether that that view is completely correct, because, you know, the point's been made over and over again, that in the Afghanistan conflict, B-1 were used for close air support. Precision-guided munitions can do all kinds of great things with the right sensors, it could be that yes, you won't see any fighters used on strafing runs. But it doesn't mean they won't be relevant for some degree of close-air support. The whole virtue of the crude fighter platform is that it's meant to be adaptable, to a whole spectrum of conflicts, everything from a full up shooting war, down to just a no-fly zone enforcement, just the complete spectrum. So in other words, you wouldn't want to exclude the possibility of it being used for any specific mission. I mean, it's within the range of my career to remember reconnaissance versions of fighters, RF-5s and RF-4s and even RF-16s. So yes, and it's probable that using them in reconnaissance missions has been overtaken by events. There are simply too many other great sensors from UAVs, to satellites, to whatever else to have that requirement. So that's about the only thing that that really comes to mind on this end.

Hope Hodge Seck 22:25

So you've talked about all of these elements and aspects and really amazing cutting-edge technology and things like AI that are going to be baked in to whatever the next generation does look like. But if you had to pick one aspect, you know, what would you say, is the most transformational aspect in terms of warfare that we'll see from the next generation?

Richard Aboulafia 22:50

Well, I fear it might be artificial intelligence. Obviously, that's an area of concern from from a moral standpoint, whatever else. But let's break down the possibilities, and I'll let your listeners judge. You know, one is certainly artificial intelligence, especially as an enabling capability for the use of adjunct drones and Loyal Wingman-type program. Another is hyperconnectivity, where everything is wired up. And there is absolutely no information on your side from a satellite, or an AWACS or other peer fighters or even small drones or whatever. It isn't instantly funneled into your observability. When you're sitting in a cockpit, you see it all happening instantly. We're heading there with sensor fusion, but what if it was from all sources and using artificial intelligence to prioritize threats and targets and other factors that you would need to know? So basically, kind of hyper-awareness network, if you will, that might be another one. And then third, it might be hypersonics. It could be that in 15, 20 years, hypersonic munitions migrate down to the tactical platform level, I can't rule it out, right. Now, of course, it's seen as more of a, you know, strategic thing or a B-52. But it could be that, you know, something in the F-15, or who knows, maybe even F-35 class, or certainly this concept of a new, larger sixth-gen platform could be able to carry and deploy. And that would be absolutely huge leap in terms of capabilities. If it really was a, you know, straightforward, air-breathing hypersonic weapon. So those are the three areas I think that could be truly transformational. We don't know enough. I don't know enough, certainly about likely rates of maturation, or threat, or any of these things to decide which of those three things but I can't expect it would be one of those three.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:58

And then the last question, I guess, is a personal one. How did this become your life's work? I mean, what was the the on-ramp to becoming an expert in this field for you?

Richard Aboulafia 25:10

I was always fascinated by the the topic. And I went to grad school for more studies. And I guess it's usually relevant, did my master's thesis in the destruction of the second echelon of Warsaw Pact forces by by NATO airpower. Maybe it'll be useful again one day, who knows? Maybe something that was personal, thank you for asking, you know, my dad was an infantryman in World War II. And whenever I'd asked him about it, he would always say, we had no relationship with airpower whatsoever. But when we looked up, and we saw friendly planes, we knew the war was going our way. You know, it sort of fits in with that, I guess. One very important narrative of airpower that I think has evolved over the years, which is that it might not be the thing that wins you the war, but if you don't have it, you're going to lose the war.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:06

Yeah, well said. Well, thank you so much for taking some of your morning to be with us today. This has been an education and a half for me.

Richard Aboulafia 26:16

Thanks so much.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:17

Can't wait till 2035 until we see some of these things take shape.

Richard Aboulafia 26:21

Who knows? But we are heading towards a generational change. That's absolutely right.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:35

Thanks again for spending time here at Left of Boom. 2021 is shaping up to be a year of transformation and change as the world emerges from the pandemic. And that definitely holds true for the military community. In our next episode, we're going to be talking about the most important trends and events for veterans to watch this year. It should be a lively show, you won't want to miss it. You can find all our past episodes and listen to them for free wherever podcasts are found, and we have a great lineup of new shows planned for this year. While you're waiting on new episodes, be sure to check out all the news and information you need about your military community every day at

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