In 1909, the United States introduced the concept of military aviation to the world with the purchase of its first Wright Military Flyer. A decade later American and Allied pilots found themselves squaring off against aviators from the German Empire over the Western Front in the first battles for air dominance.
But like maintaining any technological edge over your opponents, air superiority is never guaranteed. The only way to keep the advantage is to continue to outpace, outbuild, and outfox the competition. Now, the next step in that race is beginning to take shape.
In September, the U.S. Air Force announced that it had secretly designed, built, and tested a prototype fighter under its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. Details regarding the new fighter remain sparse, but the program’s nature does offer a few important bits of context.
The NGAD program aims to develop the next generation of air superiority fighter, which places its technological lineage in the realm of the legendary F-15 Eagle and America’s premier intercept fighter, the F-22 Raptor. While experts continue to mull over what capabilities might be required of the first 6th generation fighter, some answers could be gleaned by checking out its competition: Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 Felon and China’s Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon.
New Fearsome Fighters
The U.S. introduced stealth to the world with the F-117 Nighthawk, and for decades enjoyed a monopoly on low observable platforms. Lockheed Martin, the firm that designed and built the F-117, would go on to establish the fifth generation of fighters with the F-22 Raptor, the world’s first air superiority fighter designed from the ground up with stealth in mind. Initially, the U.S. planned to order 750 of these new stealth fighters, but shifting priorities and lower budgets ultimately left the program dead after just 186 were built.
The F-35 would eventually come to utilize a great deal of the F-22’s supply chain when it entered production, ensuring the U.S. would never see another F-22 roll off the assembly line.
With both the F-22 and F-35 in its stable, the U.S. still holds the largest fleet of stealth fighters in the world, but with Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-20 both currently in production and already deemed operational, the U.S.’s days of having a monopoly on stealth fighters has officially come to a close. These fighters represent the most technologically advanced and capable platforms in Chinese and Russian arsenals.
These adversaries also offer an important glimpse into what America’s next jet will need to beat.
One of the most significant technological developments that separates fifth-generation fighters from what’s come before is stealth design. While some fourth-generation fighters leverage things like radar-absorbent coating to delay detection, fighters like the Su-57 and J-20 were designed with stealth in mind from the ground up.
Stealth isn’t a single technology, but rather a series of overlapping technologies, production methodologies, and combat tactics used to limit or impede detection from enemy weapons systems. Stealth isn’t about making an aircraft invisible, so much as making it survivable in highly contested airspace.
While stealth is the most commonly discussed aspect of fifth-generation fighters, their leap in avionics systems offers a similarly significant advantage.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is often referred to as a “quarterback in the sky” by pilots for good reason: The aircraft is effectively a flying supercomputer designed to take in data from numerous disparate sources and combine it into a single, easy to manage, user interface. While America may have the lead in fifth-generation avionics, both Russia and China have placed a significant emphasis on this technology in the development of the Felon and Mighty Dragon.
All the stealth and avionics tech in the world can’t win a fight without weapons, though total armament is one area where new jet platforms lag behind their predecessors. In order to maintain a stealth profile, these fighters have to carry weapons internally, limiting their total payload capacity.
But these fighters do offer external hardpoints for mounting extra weaponry in uncontested airspace. If stealth isn’t a factor, each of these fighters can carry far more firepower into the fight, but because both Russia and China maintain large fleets of highly capable fourth-generation fighters, these fighters will likely be leveraged primarily in operations where maintaining a low profile is preferred.
Just how important maneuverability will be for this generation of fighters remains unclear. Some experts believe the era of dogfighting ended as soon as advanced fighters began carrying missiles that could engage targets from beyond the horizon. But others say that the conventional wisdom of our day is based on small wars against technologically inferior opponents. That means we can’t reliably predict what a superpower war would look like.
The closer fighters are to one another when they engage, the more acrobatic they need to be to win, but from long distances, avionics and weapon performance become a more significant advantage. These two approaches to air combat seem to be on display in the Su-57 and J-20, with the Russian fighter apparently built for close up dogfights and the Chinese jet favoring long distance engagements.
While it can be informative to analyze the different specific aspects of a fighter, it’s the way these systems complement one another that really determines overall capability.
Because neither of these jets have seen actual combat yet, assessing their overall performance is a bit of a guessing game, but there are certainly some conclusions we can draw from unclassified data regarding each. Fighters in the fifth-generation are expected to serve as multi-role platforms capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations, but the broader the mission set required of an aircraft, the less capable it becomes in each.
That means both the Su-57 and J-20 may be tasked with similar operations, but they each seem to specialize in slightly different areas.
U.S.’s Next Fighter: Help From (Robot) Friends
Like its air superiority predecessors, the F-22 Raptor was designed from the ground up to dominate the skies, but politics and economics forced the cancellation of the program after only 186 were made.
Today, some estimates place the number of combat-ready F-22’s as low as just 33 at any given time. With China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57 already in service and moving toward higher volume production, it makes sense that the U.S. is moving quickly to develop the next generation of air superiority fighter, and in keeping with America’s aviation lineage, it will likely aim to leapfrog past the advanced capabilities of both Russia and China’s top tier jets.
While stealth technologies will continue to mature, the next generation American air superiority fighter will likely see huge leaps in avionics and data fusion. F-35 pilots stand head and shoulders above the competition in terms of situational awareness thanks to the aircraft’s ability to receive and streamline data from multiple sources into a single interface. The next iteration of this technology will almost certainly see the addition of unmanned drones operating in support of crewed fighters to extend sensor range, increase their weapons magazine, and even protect the pilot. This effort is already underway in programs like the Air Force’s Skyborg initiative and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman program.
In order to support the rapid advancement of these technologies, America’s next generation fighter will likely have to leverage a more modular design than previous jets, which will allow avionics systems, weapons, and other hardware on the aircraft to be easily removed and replaced with newer, more capable systems as they’re developed. As a result of both of these changes, the next fighter will also need to roll off the assembly line with a fair amount of surplus power to support not just the most advanced systems the U.S. has to offer today, but importantly, also the directed energy weapons of the coming decades.
Currently, the Air Force aims to begin arming fighters with laser weapons by 2025.
The Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi Su-57 don’t just represent the best of their respective Air Forces, they also represent the end of America’s monopoly on stealth fighters. To put it simply, the NGAD program has its work cut out for it.