A sixth-generation fighter represents an envisioned category of fighter aircraft designs that surpass the technological capabilities of the currently deployed and in-development fifth-generation jet fighters. Several nations, including the United States, Russia, and China, have publicly disclosed their plans to pursue national sixth-generation aircraft programs. Additionally, a consortium of countries, including Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden, has embarked on collaborative multinational initiatives aimed at sharing the developmental expenses.
It is anticipated that the first operational sixth-generation fighters will be introduced into service during the 2030s.
India is presently in the process of developing its fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is envisioned to incorporate certain sixth-generation technologies. Nevertheless, there are concerns among analysts regarding the feasibility of India’s capability to successfully develop a fifth-generation fighter, and even more so, a sixth-generation one. These doubts arise from India’s perceived limitations in terms of industrial infrastructure and technical expertise in comparison to more established aerospace powers.
Concepts and Technologies of Sixth-Generation Fighter
Concepts and technologies of sixth-generation fighters include:
- Advanced Stealth: Enhanced stealth capabilities to evade detection.
- Hypersonic Speed: Ability to reach speeds beyond Mach 5.
- Directed Energy Weapons: Integration of high-energy lasers.
- Advanced Sensors: State-of-the-art sensor suites for enhanced situational awareness.
- AI and Autonomous Systems: Utilization of artificial intelligence for decision-making.
- Network-Centric Warfare: Seamless integration into broader military networks.
- Multirole Capability: Versatility for diverse mission profiles.
- Extended Range: Increased operational range for greater flexibility.
- Improved Survivability: Enhanced defensive systems.
- Sustainability and Efficiency: Focus on fuel efficiency and reduced environmental impact.
Nations Who developing Sixth-gen Fighters
Countries that are actively involved in the development of sixth-generation fighter aircraft include:
Japan, United Kingdom and Italy
In 2010, the Japanese government introduced a conceptual sixth-generation jet fighter known as the i3 FIGHTER, where “i3” stands for informed, intelligent, and instantaneous.
In July 2014, a report from the UK’s House of Commons Defence Select Committee discussed the possibility of the UK entering a next-generation fighter program after 2030, potentially to replace the Eurofighter Typhoon, which had its expected service life extended to approximately 2040. On March 22, 2016, Japan conducted the inaugural flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin testbed aircraft as part of this project.
In July 2018, the then British Secretary of State for Defense, Gavin Williamson, unveiled the UK’s Combat Air Strategy and introduced a conceptual sixth-generation fighter named the Tempest for the Royal Air Force, which was presented at the Farnborough Airshow 2018.
In 2019, Sweden and Italy joined the Tempest project, while India and Japan received invitations to participate. On April 1, 2020, Japan officially announced its F-X program. In 2022, after a year of increasingly close collaboration with the Tempest project and a withdrawal from an industrial partnership with Lockheed Martin, Japan merged its F-X program with the BAE Tempest fighter development to establish the three-nation Global Combat Air Programme. Japan also opted to pursue separate drone development. Two weeks after this agreement was signed among the UK, Italy, and Japan, Sweden signed a bilateral defense trade agreement with Japan, allowing Sweden to continue as an observer in the program with the option to participate as a development partner in the future if desired.
France, Germany, Spain
France, Germany, and Spain have collaborated on a sixth-generation system, and it is anticipated that a demonstrator will undergo a test flight approximately in 2027, with plans for it to enter into active service around 2040.
On August 26, 2013, Russia announced its intention to advance the development of a sixth-generation jet fighter. It was indicated that this aircraft would likely be unmanned, but this decision would not preclude the completion of ongoing fifth-generation fighter projects, such as the Sukhoi Su-57.
Additionally, Russia has initiated the Mikoyan PAK DP program, aimed at creating a next-generation interceptor aircraft to replace the Mikoyan MiG-31. As stated by Russian defense analyst Vasily Kashin, this aircraft project is considered to be in the category of either 5++ or 6th generation fighters. In January 2021, Rostec Corporation, the owner of Mikoyan, announced that the PAK DP had officially entered the development phase, with the statement, “Development of the next generation of interceptor fighters has already commenced.”
The United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Navy (USN) are projected to introduce their initial sixth-generation fighter aircraft in the 2030 timeframe. The USAF is actively engaged in the development and procurement of a sixth-generation air superiority fighter as part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, which serves as the successor to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Similarly, the USN is pursuing a comparable initiative under the same NGAD program name, with the fighter component being referred to as the F/A-XX. This new aircraft is intended to complement the smaller Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II and replace existing aircraft like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The U.S. Navy initiated its sixth-generation F/A-XX program in 2008, while the USAF began seeking initial responses for a Next Generation Tactical Aircraft (Next Gen TACAIR), which would later evolve into the F-X program, in 2010.
In April 2013, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) launched a study aimed at converging existing USAF and USN concepts. Initially, the next-generation fighter efforts would be led by DARPA under the “Air Dominance Initiative” to develop prototype X-planes, with the U.S. Navy and Air Force each focusing on variants tailored to their specific mission requirements. However, in the same year, the RAND Corporation advised against joint programs for the design of a sixth-generation fighter, citing previous instances where different service-specific requirements had led to design compromises, significantly increasing costs.
In 2014, a more comprehensive approach to offensive technologies was proposed, envisioning USAF aircraft operating alongside ground-based and non-kinetic anti-aircraft solutions, and with a greater weapon payload compared to current fighters. In 2016, the USAF formalized this shift in strategy with its Air Superiority 2030 plan, emphasizing “a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms” instead of focusing solely on a sixth-generation fighter. The Air Force and Navy’s requirements were already merged by this time, with a shared focus on AI systems and a common airframe.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have all announced projects for the development of sixth-generation aircraft. On September 14, 2020, the USAF disclosed that a prototype aircraft component for the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program had completed its inaugural flight, but specific details remained classified.
Sixth-generation fighters represent the next leap in air combat technology. They incorporate advanced concepts and technologies such as stealth, hypersonic speed, directed energy weapons, artificial intelligence, and network-centric warfare. These aircraft are designed to provide superior capabilities, versatility, and survivability in the evolving threat landscape. As nations around the world work on developing their own sixth-generation fighters, the future of aerial warfare promises to be marked by innovation and increased effectiveness in securing air dominance.