The Pentagon has yet to figure out exactly how it will afford the 2.500 brand new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters it has ordered from Lockheed Martin (“LMT”), but that hasn’t stopped it from dreaming of its next big fighter jet program. Northrop Grumman (“NOC”) has unveiled designs for so-called “sixth-generation” combat jets slated to replace many of the Pentagon’s current fourth- and fifth-generation fighters sometime in the mid-2030s.
What does that future look like? According to Northrop engineers, it is tailless, stealthy, and packs a laser cannon. It conspicuously resembles a scaled-down version of Northrop’s most notable feat of aerospace engineering, the B-2 stealth bomber. It also appears to place a premium on range and weaponry over speed and maneuverability, offering a glimpse into the Pentagon’s current thinking on future conflicts.
The concepts, unveiled Monday, are potential candidates for what are referred to as the U.S. Air Force’s “F-X” program and the U.S. Navy’s “FA-XX” program—future, yet-to-be-named development programs that would replace current fleets of F-15 and F-22 fighters for the Air Force as well as the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets. While the Pentagon hasn’t yet determined exactly what it wants out of its next generation of fighters, it has indicated that military planners want greater weapons capacity, greater stealth, and higher survivability—jets that can fly further afield while relying less on support from other aircraft or the assets on the ground.
Key to achieving that self-sufficiency: directed-energy weapons, more colloquially known as lasers. The idea of using directed energy beams to knock out incoming threats or otherwise disable enemy hardware isn’t new, but Northrop’s F-X and FA-XX would mark the first time a fighter jet has been seemingly designed around a laser weapon. The idea: The jets could use a rechargeable solid-state laser to shoot down enemy missiles or aircraft that come within a certain range, essentially creating a no-fly zone around each aircraft.
An effective, rechargeable airborne laser weapon would mark a significant shift in fighter jet technology and tactics, as combat aircraft up to this point have largely relied on expendable weaponry. They’ve also relied on speed and maneuverability as defensive countermeasures. The introduction of speed-of-light weapons to the aerial battlefield would place a greater emphasis on avoiding detection altogether than on evading enemy air defenses.
The major challenge, Northrop acknowledges, isn’t so much in airframe design but in conquering the constraints of fundamental physics. High-powered lasers are famously inefficient, converting only about a third of the energy they expend into target-incinerating laser beam power. So for every megawatt of energy from a laser weapon, twice that is wasted as heat. For a stealth jet trying to hide from sophisticated radar and infrared sensors, venting huge amounts of heat is roughly equivalent to firing off signal flares.
Northrop execs say the aircraft’s designers have a plan to deal with this thermal management problem, declining to elaborate further. Suffice it to say that whatever form the F-X and F/A-XX take, the target-lazing, super-stealthy, long-range fighter jets of the future promise to be larger and far more complex than any fighter jet in service today.
That could prove problematic. One of the primary criticisms of the Pentagon’s $400 billion F-35 program centers on the aircraft’s overwrought complexity—and the high cost associated with that complexity—begging the question: How will the Pentagon pay for its sixth-generation fleet? It plans to continue its costly acquisition of F-35s through the 2020s and into the 2030s, when the new sixth-gen jets would (optimistically) first enter service.
To get to that point, the Pentagon would have to shell out to develop the costly F-X and F/A-XX programs throughout the 2020s at the same time it’s paying for the $100 billion Long Range Strike Bomber program and the bulk of its F-35s. Given the tough economics of the situation, airborne laser cannons and physics-bending thermal management systems may be among the more realistic aspects of the Pentagon’s sixth-gen fighter jet aspirations.
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