Forget the F-35: China Will Fear America's 6th Generation Fighter

Kris Osborn

Key point: The military is already working on what comes next and it will be much more advanced than the F-35.

Fighter jets in 20-years may likely contain the next-generation of stealth technoology, electronic warfare, sophisticated computer processing and algorithms, increased autonomy, hypersonic weapons and so-called "smart-skins" where sensors are built into the side of the aircraft itself. 

Some of these characteristics may have been on display earlier this year when Northrop Grumman's SuperBowl AD revealed a flashy first look at its rendering of a new 6th-generation fighter jet. Northrop is one of a number of major defense industry manufacturers who will bid for a contract to build the new plane - when the time is right. 

The new aircraft, engineered to succeed the 5th-generation F-35 Joint StrikeFighter and explode onto the scene by the mid 2030s, is now in the earliest stages of conceptual development with the Air Force and Navy. The two services are now working together on early conceptual discussions about the types of technologies and capabilities the aircraft will contain. While the Air Force has not yet identified a platform for the new aircraft. 

The Navy's new aircraft will, at least in part, replace the existing inventory of F/A-18 Super Hornets which will start to retire by 2035, Navy officials said. 

The Navy vision for a future carrier air wing in 2040 and beyond is comprised of the carrier-launched variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, and legacy aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler electronic jamming aircraft.

Also, around this time is when Navy planners envision its 6th generation aircraft to be ready, an aircraft which will likely be engineered for both manned and unmanned missions.

Technologies are rapidly advancing in coatings, electromagnetic spectrum issues, maneuvering, superiority in sensing the battlespace, communications and data links, Navy leaders have said.

Navy officials also add that the Navy is likely to develop new carrier-launched unmanned air vehicles in coming years as well.

Analysts have speculated that as 6th generation developers seek to engineer a sixth-generation aircraft, they will likely explore a range of next-generation technologies such as maximum sensor connectivity, super cruise ability and an aircraft with electronically configured “smart skins.”

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