A new manned fighter will be defined in an era when unmanned air vehicles (UAV) are ubiquitous and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) are a reality. UCAVs will not replace manned aircraft but will influence the design of the next fighters by relieving them of some missions, such as suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses or stand-in electronic attack. One argument for the Navy’s RAQ-25 carrier-based air refueling system is that it can extend both the range and life of the strike-fighter force.
Directed-energy weapons will be a real factor. Technological breakthroughs, like the Missile Defense Agency’s projects, lie within the realm of the possible. More likely, the development of a practical weapon—such as a laser capable of defending a large aircraft against missile attack—will trigger a cascade of new applications, higher production rates and engineering improvements, analogous to the rapid development of targeting pods since the late 1990s.
Small precision-guided bombs, largely autonomous after launch, are a reality: A future fighter will be designed around many small weapons rather than a pair of 2,000-lb. heavyweights.
Major airplane contractors are pushing supersonic-cruising, long-range, agile aircraft with all-aspect, wideband stealth, powered by variable-cycle engines because it is a high-margin business with formidable barriers to entry for new competitors.
To drag the cost of LRS-B out of the stratosphere, the Air Force made it part of a reconnaissance-strike complex. The fighter will be the same: The more that it functions as a link in the chain between more capable, survivable UAVs and longer-range, more jam-resistant weapons, the less it relies on its own sensors and survivability. It will be able to operate autonomously, but that may not be its primary mode of operation.
Above all, adaptability. When the JSF’s shape was sketched two decades ago, China’s military comprised serried ranks of 1950s Soviet kit, a mobile phone was only mobile in big cities (and a mere plastic brick if you lived elsewhere), and containing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was little more than a chore. The industry had barely started to contemplate MLUs for the first digital fighters, so the word “obsolescence” was only starting to cause fear.
We have little idea what to expect by 2036, so we must be ready to adapt: to use only open architectures, to upgrade electronic hardware and software at close-to-market speed and even use new manufacturing technology to alter airframes—“change the dustcover,” as one engineer put it a few years ago, when computers had dustcovers.
SOURCE – Aviation Week