The sixth generation fighters and upgrades to older fighters over the next 10-20 years will involve better engines for more range and speed, hypersonic weapons, combat lasers, unmanned flight and drones.
Hypersonic missiles (mach 5 or faster) are already being introduced by Russia and China. The US is developing combat laser pods which will be added to fighter jets. Unmanned flight is being used for various planes. Large drones are being deployed to help with refueling existing military planes. Future large drones will fight alongside future fighter planes.
It will be another 10 years after that for hypersonic drones and hypersonic planes that will define the seventh generation of fighters.
Challenge of better fighter engines
Engines are the key to fighter jet performance. Speed and range all depend upon the power and efficiency of the engines.
Better materials, improved manufacturing, 3D printing of parts are needed for higher temperature and pressure levels.
The Air Force Research Lab has the Adaptive Engine Transition and the Adaptive Engine Technology Development programs for fighter engines with 25% less fuel consumption and improved heat absorption by 60%. This would increase the range of the F-35 and other planes by 35% and enable them to stay over a target for 50% longer.
New GE and Pratt Whitey engines will also have 12% more thrust over the existing F-35 engine.
GE and Pratt Whitney have been given contracts that are part of the final phase. $1.5 billion will be needed to complete the final prototypes and engine development.
Afterwards many billions will be needed for Engineering, Manufacturing, and Development (EMD) to re-engine various planes.
Previous Five Generations of Fighter Jets
First generation subsonic jet fighters (mid 1940s to mid 1950s)
The first generation of jet fighters such as the F-86, MiG-15and MiG-17, had basic avionic systems with no radars or self-protection countermeasures, and were armed with machine guns or cannons, as well as unguided bombs and rockets. A common characteristic of this generation of fighter was that the jet engines did not have afterburners and the aircraft operated in the subsonic regime.
Second generation jet fighters (mid-1950s to early 1960s)
The second generation fighters had air-to-air radar, infrared and semi-active guided missiles, as well as radar warning receivers. The second generation jets were F-104, F-5, MiG-19 and MiG-21. They could sustain supersonic speeds in level flight. Air-to-air combat was within visual range but radar-guided missiles started to extend engagement ranges.
Third generation jet fighters (early 1960s to 1970)
This generation had improved manoeuvrability and better avionic suites and weapon systems. The multi-role fighters like MiG-23, F-4, and Mirage III were third generation. Doppler radar and guided radio-frequency missiles like the AIM-7 Sparrow and AA-7 Apex moved combat beyond the visual range.
Fourth generation jet fighters (1970 to late 1980s)
These planes had head-up displays, better aerodynamic design and ‘fly by wire’. The MiG-29, Su-27, F/A-18, F-15, F-16, and Mirage-2000 were the dominant fourth generation fighters. They could attack air-to-air and air-to-ground.
Four and half generation jet fighters (late 1980s and into the 90s)
The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is an example of a 4.5 generation fighter evolved from a fourth generation aircraft. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar was added to enable some detection of enemy stealth fighters. The 4.5 fighters also had some stealth capabilities and extended ranges. They also had better networking between planes and ground support and better electronics.
Fifth generation jet fighters (2005 to date)
The F-22 Raptor and F-35 are fifth-generation fighters. They have full stealth capabilities and a lot of electronics and complex computer software. China’s J-20 with its new engine might be considered fifth-generation.
Sixth generation fighters
The sixth generation fighters will involve better engines for more range and speed, hypersonic weapons, combat lasers, unmanned flight and fight with wing-man drones.
Seventh generation fighters
These will likely be hypersonic planes able to fly beyond mach 5.