Sunday, December 13, 2015

Mini Crazy Thought: What Will a 6th Generation Fighter be?

One of the things I enjoy is following and speculating about things militaria.  It probably stems from the 'family business' colliding with my geeky tech interests.  I've written about what to do with the LCS, etc., before.  Today, with the recent announcements of Northrop's one thoughts and concepts on the 6th generation fighter, I am going to throw some thoughts out.

Joint Strike Fighter Nevermore

The military has learned a lot about doing aircraft projects from the F-35.  Its something that ought to have been realized before, but simply put "one suze does not fit all."  What the navy needs, the marines need and the air force needs are NOT the same thing.  Whatever the FA-XX (US Navy) and the F-X (US Air Force) have in common, they will be separate programs and planes.  There will be two Sixth Generation fighters (at least) built by the Pentagon.

"If you can see it, you can kill it."

That's a quote from an air force general from the Gulf War circa 1991.  It struck me as pretty profound at the time - hey, I was in high school - however, it really is going to be a truism for the future.  Sorta. 

No matter what, stealth technology is going to be the minimum entry for a 6th gen fighter.  Sensors have become simply too good at detecting aircraft and stealth is not magic, but does greatly reduce the range detection happens at.  With hypersonic missiles proliferating, reducing that detection range is going to be crucial.  

Lasers will only make detection minimization a greater necessity.  A laser can reach out and kill something at the speed of light so long as the beam director can lock onto the target.  Minimizing the detection becomes even more crucial.  Optical stealth is likely.  Reducing IR signature is going to be part of the kit as well, but IR is notorious...

What Hammer to Bring Down?

Missiles and lasers.  These are the weapons a sixth generation fighter will bring to the hunt.  

The old and trusty gun will be removed in favor of the laser for air to air combat, light ground targets, but will remain for a replacement for something like the A-10.  

Lasers have no windage and are only limited by thermal management for the frequency of firing for the number of shots.  There's no longer an ammo limitation otherwise.  A military grade laser (100 kw+) will be able to reach out the horizon.  Gun range is far, far less (less than 5 km).  Laser also can be used against incoming missiles in a self defense mode.  This will GREATLY increase the costs downing an aircraft.

Missiles will change though.  Its lightly likely, to me, we will see missile become two stage.  The first stage will be hypersonic to allow aircraft to fire from beyond the horizon, very far beyond the horizon.  The second stage will be a very maneuverable missile as good or better than our current missiles, turning G's that would tear apart our current generation of missiles.  At least for air to air combat.  Air to ground might use the same base firs stage and then have a glider second stage to minimize the thermal signature.  

 The missile magazine is likely to be quite large by modern standards.  16+ missiles are likely to be carried.  It's also highly likely some of those hypersonic first stages will actually deploy drones with data feeds back to the fighter.  Radars, eletrooptical or infrared will all be featured.

Range to Kill

The fighters are likely to have a greatly increased range.  As in launch from Guam to be able to engage two to three thousand km away for air force birds and probably about a thousand kilometers for navy.  The new engines are likely to be necessary, but not likely to have hypersonic capabilities.  Hypersonics are NOT compatible with stealth.

One Fat Frakker

When adding all of the above together, the aircraft generated is bigger, much bigger than the ones we have today as fighters.  The heaviest F-111 is probably about right.  100k lbs (45 metric tons). 

What does a fighter clash look like?

Fed data via offboard platforms, fighters will close to sensor range.  Missiles will be lobbed at one another at extreme range, two to three hundred kilometers away.  The lasers will engage against the missiles and bring down what is possible.  

The fighters will close to just below the horizon and then will start popping up to take shots via laser.  These will be more reminiscent of infantry popping up and shooting, though with accuracy more akin to snipers than pray and spray.  The offboard drones, both deployed from the fighter and not, are feeding data to the fighter as well.

And THAT is the dogfight.  Its no longer closing to 5 km or less for a wild furball.  A laser would cut down anything closing that close.  This means maneuvering like an F-16 is history, even counter productive.  Climb rate and dive are more important when popping up and down for a laser fight than twisting hither and yon.

Just some crazy thoughts.


John Delvin said...

I suspect that it may not be that 100%.

I don't know if lasers can penetrate dense clouds of rain.
If can't, then low tech fighters can get in close.

And if new tech fighters don't have guns for close in, they could lose.

Other than that, probably laser planes have the win.

Will Baird said...

They can, but only somewhat. You might have the same sort of fight taking place. Diving into clouds or below/above to dodge a laser.