Military & Aerospace

Future of Air Dominance
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Issue Vol. 33.3 Jul-Sep 2018 | Date : 21 Feb , 2019

Lockheed Martin’s F-35B

Sixth-Generation Fighters

Boeing is proposing a replacement for the F-22A Raptor. The project is currently in concept stage and the USAF remains non-committal. Boeing envisages the F/A-XX, F-X and a possible Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) comprising an all-encompassing future strategy. Boeing is also responding to the USN’s request for information regarding a new F/A-XX aircraft that could replace its fleet of Super Hornets in the 2030s. The regular Hornet aircraft is being replaced by the F-35s. Lockheed Martin’s proposal calls for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures; developments that will require new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapon technology. Self-healing structures in particular would have significant advantage over modern-day aircraft, remaining airborne despite taking heavy fire.

A laser weapon is expected to be mounted on Next-Generation Air Dominance fighters by the 2030s…

The system comprises pockets of epoxy resin and hardener installed around vulnerable parts of the aircraft such as the underbelly, hatchways and wheel wells. If the area is damaged, the contents of the pocket are released to form a temporary plug, helping the aircraft to operate despite the damage. New generation of engines will allow ultra-high altitude super-cruise. The avionics are supposed to withstand next generation electronic attack and cyber-attack, have passive detection and integrated self-protection. The tailless flying wing, “cranked kite” design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft. The sixth-generation fighters are expected to use advanced engines such as ‘Adaptive Versatile Engine’ technology to allow longer ranges and higher performance, where the ratios of bypass and compression airflow can be made variable to improve efficiency. Major action is unfolding. The combat pilot still has backers and still has a place onboard.

New Engine Technology

The sixth-generation fighters are expected to use advanced engines such as Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology to allow longer range and higher performance. The engines are expected to be ready when fighters are introduced by the USN in 2028 and the USAF in 2032. The laser and systems controls are to work at altitudes from sea level to 65,000 ft at speeds from Mach 0.6 to Mach 2.5. The newer engines could vary their bypass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. That would give an aircraft a much greater range, faster acceleration and greater subsonic cruise efficiency. A variable cycle engine could configure itself to act like a turbojet at supersonic speeds while performing like a high-bypass turbofan for efficient cruising at slower speeds; the ability to super-cruise may not be a critical requirement. A low-bypass configuration would be used for takeoffs and supersonic flight and a high-bypass configuration would have high propulsive efficiency for cruising. Companies involved with next-generation engine development include General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.

AGM-114 Hellfire hung on a Predator drone

Evolving Future Weaponry

Future weaponry would utilise scramjets for the production of faster missiles. Despite failing its recent tests, Boeing’s X-51A Wave-rider scramjet remains in development as it hopes to reach hypersonic speeds approaching Mach 6, a speed at which a missile could not be stopped by conventional air defence technology. Continued experiments with DEW and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures, delivering effects at the speed of light, are also likely to shape precisely what sixth-generation fighters are equipped with. New aircraft will be as much about reusable weaponry (lasers) as it is about expendable weaponry.

The USAF is interested in three categories of lasers – low-power for illuminating, tracking, targeting and defeating enemy sensors; moderate-power for protection to destroy incoming missiles and high-power to offensively engage enemy aircraft and ground targets. The USAF is developing a new air-to-air missile, dubbed the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) for 2030s. The SACM would promise an improved solid rocket motor having synergised control enabled by combined aero, attitude control and thrust vectoring. The missile will have improved ‘high off bore sight’ for rear hemisphere kills and ‘lower cost per kill’. The missile would also incorporate energy optimising guidance, navigation and control. The Miniature Self-Defence Munitions (MSDM) will enhance future platforms self-defence capability without impacting the primary weapon payload.

The USAF is developing a new air-to-air missile, dubbed the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) for 2030s…

A sixth-generation missile could replace the AMRAAM. A survivable, long-range missile with combined air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities is being evolved. Range would be a big factor to counter potential adversaries with Chinese PL-15. It will be multi-band, broad spectrum which aids it in survivability and reaching the target. DARPA’s Triple Target Terminator (T3) programme envisions combined capabilities of Raytheon’s AIM-120 and AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). No aircraft is invisible and using stand-off weaponry early in an air campaign to open up weaknesses in an enemy’s air defence will be required even for fifth-generation fighter aircraft to operate in the area without excess risk. 

Development of solid-state airborne laser capability is already underway. The solid-state laser systems defensively create a sanitised sphere of safety around the aircraft, shooting down or critically damaging incoming missiles and approaching aircraft with the laser turrets. Even attacking targets on the ground such as individual people with pinpoint precision or shooting down ballistic missiles and other traditional targets are possibilities. Controlling the aircraft’s heat signature while using laser weaponry will be an issue. One option is to develop a thermal accumulator or alternatively, off-board venting to manage the heat. Newer liquid-based lasers promise enough energy to bring down an aircraft (about 150kW) yet are small enough to fit on a truck or be mounted on a jet fighter. A laser weapon is expected to be mounted on Next-Generation Air Dominance fighters by the 2030s.

Evolving Other Technologies

For long, military aviation doctrines and requirements drove technology. Today, technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. AI, smart structures and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing onboard the aircraft is essential. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semi-conductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool and improves reliability for radars. Any system must be designed with aim for maintaining a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment.

As on date, the AMCA is still at project definition stage and the first flight could be around 2028 with induction in 2035…

The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximise structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be built faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics and customised weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change the ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs.

Need for Heavy Stealth

Fighters such as the F-35 and F-22 may be stealthy, but their support assets such as aerial tankers, JSTAR and AWACS are not. The USAF needs ‘heavy stealth revolution’ for low observable tankers, transports, bombers and ‘flying sensor and communications trucks’, as these will be targeted. The USAF could adapt the new stealth bomber design for the stealth tanker role. It will also give ability to insert special operations teams deep behind enemy lines via a stealthy high-altitude penetrating transport.

Time to Act India

Japan’s sixth-generation fighter would be based on concept of aircraft informed, intelligent and instantaneous. Japan has already conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft for this project. Russia says the aircraft will most likely be pilotless. For now the FGFA Sukhoi Su-57 is being inducted. The Mikoyan MiG-41 is a sixth-generation jet fighter interceptor aircraft currently being developed for the Russian Air Force. France and Germany announced they would jointly develop a new combat aircraft to replace the Eurofighter, Tornado and Rafale. It is likely to be a twin-seat ‘system of systems’ aircraft acting as a combat platform as well as controlling the UCAVs.

France has abandoned any attempt to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter and has moved resources directly to development of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft. The UK is committed to a next-generation fighter programme to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon post-2030. However, the Eurofighter Typhoon has had its service life extended to around 2040. China is still evolving its J-20 and J-31. Some Chinese publications are talking of a sixth-generation aircraft referred to as Huolong (Fire Dragon). But as on date, China has serious limitations on radar, avionics and engine technologies.

The IAF today has fourth-generation plus fighters in its fleet of upgraded Jaguar, Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and SU-30 MKI…

The IAF today has fourth-generation plus fighters in its fleet of upgraded Jaguar, Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and SU-30 MKI. Other than Mirage 2000, all are twin-engine. The soon-to-induct Rafale is of fourth-generation ++ class. In the not-so-far future, the LCA Tejas will be the only single-engine aircraft. The IAF needs more fourth-generation ++ aircraft. The LCA Tejas production is slow and the planned 123 aircraft could take at least ten years to induct. The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF), a fifth-generation fighter has run serious developmental and cost road-blocks and has been abandoned. The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is an Indian programme of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. It is a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-maneuverable all-weather, multi-role fighter aircraft.

Lessons learnt from the LCA programme need to be imbibed and used to get the AMCA become a huge success to propel India into the new league. As on date the AMCA is still at project definition stage and the first flight could be in 2028 with induction around 2035. With fast depleting squadrons, the IAF will require 500 fighter aircraft of fourth-generation ++ aircraft. A good mix could be around 200 LCA Tejas Mk 1A, 125 twin-engine MMRCA class, ideally already selected Rafale. The remaining nearly 175 aircraft should be single-engine MMRCA class, much cheaper than the Rafale. It is time to act and think ahead lest India gets left behind once again.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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