Sailors conduct pre-flight checks on an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 41, aboard the USS John C. Stennis, on Sept. 12, 2011.

Sailors conduct pre-flight checks on an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 41, aboard the USS John C. Stennis, on Sept. 12, 2011. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Benjamin Crossley

Here’s What You’ll Find on the Fighter Jet of 2030

Military leaders reveal their hopes and fears for the 6th Generation fighter they will desperately need.

On Monday, President Barack Obama’s budget request for the Pentagon featured more than $5 million dollars for an item tagged “Next Generation Fighter.” If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the plane of the future meant to replace the F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18 Growler aircraft by 2030. Much like the future itself, it’s been a source of much speculation but exists only as an idea.

Yesterday, in broad but revealing terms, top Navy leaders described some of the capabilities that they want in tomorrow’s fighter.

First, a bit of background: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is often called the 5th Generation fighter. It also goes by F/A-XX or, more colloquially, the X Plane. The Navy first put out a requirement for the 6th Generation plane nearly seven years ago, in June 2008. The Air Force followed with its own F-X research program. In 2013, the Defense Advanced  Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, began a program to pull the two together. At the time, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said "This is not a question about what does the next aircraft look like, this is a question about what are all the capabilities that it will take, layered together, in order to really comprehensively extend air superiority."

Pentagon officials have been tight-lipped about what they want on the 6th Generation fighter so far. In conversation with reporters during a House Armed Services Committee Hearing in January, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall declined to detail the desired budget or attributes for a new fighter. In a memo to the Defense Science Board from October, Kendall only established a task force to study air dominance.

Companies like Boeing have already unveiled concepts for what the fighter could look like (if they built it). BAE systems has also released some interesting artistic concepts featuring planes that can 3-D print their own replacement parts in the air and fold together multiple small drones into a single craft.

This week, military leaders revealed more detail about what they actually want. In conversation with reporters at the Office of Naval Research’s Future Force Expo, in Washington, Adm. Mathias Winter, new chief of the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, named some of the key capabilities he wanted the plane to feature. They were: “full spectrum dominance, next generation advanced propulsion, and autonomous sensor payload integration.”

What does that mean?

Full Spectrum Dominance

Full Spectrum Dominance is a large component of the military’s Joint Vision 2020 plan released in May of 2000. It refers to the ability of “U.S. forces, operating unilaterally or in combination with multinational and inter agency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations.”

In terms of a plane, that suggests a craft that’s suitable for a wide variety of missions, perhaps not just combat, and able to work seamlessly with foreign militaries.

One component of that (probably) is dominance over a spectrum of a different sort, the electromagnetic spectrum. The feature of the F-35 that its makers are most proud of is its ability to jam enemy radar and to use advanced sensors to see, render and collect data in the battle space far beyond the conventional capabilities of a fighter.

Today’s advanced aircraft carry electro-optical/infrared and synthetic aperture radar imaging capabilities. Emerging capabilities include "cognitive" electromagnetic weapons and defenses. Cognitive electromagnetic weapons autonomously find new wave forms to use against planes, tanks, or other threats (or, defensively, find ways to detect new wave forms being used against the system). Full spectrum dominance will mean more of that. It could include intelligence gathering equipment we can’t fathom. “Today it's radar but it might be something more in the future,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, at the expo.

Tomorrow’s innovations in radar, jamming and sensing, will emerge from a variety of research outfits but particularly the DARPA Microsystems Technology Office, MTO, designed specifically to tackle those sorts of problems. A future plane could carry a signals intelligence payload allowing the plane to collect information from devices on the ground, including (theoretically) a single target’s cell phone location.

But dominance has many aspects. Greenert touched on what air dominance means for him: in a word, loaded . “It has to have an ability to carry a payload such that it can deploy a spectrum of weapons. It has to be able to acquire access probably by suppressing enemy air defenses,” Greenert said.

Loaded with what sort of weapons? One probable answer is lasers. DARPA already has a program to develop a high-energy, 150 KW liquid-state laser to be incorporated onto jets, including fighter jets. The High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or HELLADS, program was expected to go into testing in 2014. In terms of broader Defense Department spending, next year’s budget request includes a big increase in spending for directed energy weapons.

The military wants to put lasers on planes for the same reason it wants to put them on ships . Shooting down swarms of cheaply produced and launched drones with conventional ammunition becomes prohibitively expensive after a certain point.

Some have speculated that Kendall’s House Armed Services Committee hearing announcement about the new plane represented a certain amount of Pentagon frustration with the F-35, its cost overruns and mounting technical problems. The 5th Generation plane is obsolete right out of the hanger, critics charge, and the Chinese have already innovated air defenses against it. The new emphasis on next-generation fighter suggested that the military was already looking beyond their most expensive weapons system ever, before it even really got off the ground.

Sam LaGrone at United States Naval Institute News, USNI, has suggested an alternative explanation in that the next generation is not so much a replacement for the F-35 as a complimentary plane.

If air dominance is like a basketball game, then the F-35 would play star forward, or rather would play an “emerging role in the carrier air wing will be—in part—as a forward sensor node for the carrier strike group to relay targeting information via the Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept .”

Navy Rear Adm. Mike Manazir told USNI, “We’re looking to replace the F/A-18E/F”—considered a beloved workhorse for combat missions, rather than star forward—“with an understanding already of what the F-35C has brought to the air wing.”

Next Generation Advanced Propulsion

How fast does the plane of the future go? Winter wants a better engine but not necessarily a speedier plane. “We know we need a bigger wick,” Winter told reporters. More specifically, he wants “a propulsion system that can provide… not just more power… I’m talking about being able to reduce the SWaP-C of your propulsion system,” he said, referring to the size, weight, power, performance, and cooling (SWaP-C) cost of the system.

Greenert also said that finding new ways to achieve hypersonic speed probably won’t be a big part of the effort. “I don’t think it’s going to be super-duper fast, because you can’t outrun missiles,” Greenert said. So “next generation propulsion” doesn’t necessarily mean the fastest flying object in the air. The military wants a plane efficiently designed to allow for high speed at low power cost. That, in turn, suggests a lot of power going to something more useful than an exhaust stream, like computer elements, advanced weapons or something else.

Autonomous Sensor and Payload Integration

An autonomous sensor in the context of a future plane can mean many things. Some market analysts speaking to DoDBuzz have speculated that the plane will probably include ‘“smart skins’ which connect the fuselage with computer technology.”

Payloads, in the context of the next generation fighter, could include small drones that use the fighter as a sort of mother ship.

DARPA officials told Defense One the current programs most relevant to the next-generation fighter program are the System of System Integration Technology and Experimentation, or SoSITE , program as well as Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment, or CODE . Both programs are aimed at developing technologies to allow drones to work with one another as well as with manned aircraft to swarm bomb an adversary.

A related project at DARPA seeks to develop “distributed air capabilities.” The agency describes that as “a large aircraft that, with minimal modification, could launch and recover multiple small unmanned systems from a standoff distance.” In other words: a mother ship. Whether or not the fighter will launch drones depends somewhat on how large a fighter can be, or how small a drone can become and still be useful as a weapon or intelligence tool.

Things That The Next-Generation Fighter May Not Have

Humans. The F-35 once was supposed to be the last manned fighter . Greenert didn’t rule out the prospect of designing a 6th Generation plane capable of carrying a human pilot. But he didn’t express enthusiasm for it.

“The weight that we put on an aircraft due to the pilot is kind of extraordinary. You take that off and put sensors on there instead,” he said.

If you keep a pilot in the cockpit of a plane that’s loaded with more and more advanced computational piloting features, what does the pilot do? Answer: less and less actual flying.

A Defense Department program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System , or ALIAS, seeks to cut down on the number of decisions that the pilot has to make by taking over some of the more mundane flying tasks. DARPA Deputy Director Steven Walker on Wednesday described the ALIAS project as “trying to build a co-pilot.”

If those capabilities can be matured and if at some point the copilot demonstrates its superiority to the fragile and expensive human in the pilot’s seat, then the decision to keep a human in the cockpit looks more like an attempt to preserve the mythos of the American fighter pilot and less like a strategic necessity. It still requires human approval to do one important thing with military weapons: kill. Given the military’s strong and surging obsession with improving autonomy and artificial intelligence—and given the rapid advance of the current state of the art—the idea of a robotic fighter pilot out-testing a human by 2030 is a safe bet.

Stealth may also be absent on the plane of tomorrow. The F-35 does have advanced stealth capabilities. In explaining why, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has said “in the near term, the stealth technology on our 5th Generation platforms, the F-22 and F-35, is the price of admission into the fight.”

Greenert expressed a slightly different valuation of that technology. “Stealth may be overrated,” he said. “I don’t want to necessarily say that it’s over; but, let’s face it, if something moves fast through the air and disrupts molecules in the air and puts out heat—I don’t care how cool the engine can be—it’s going to be detectable.”

The problem of trying to design an aircraft for the distant future is that the future is constantly in flux. At some point, new technologies will make even the concepts above look quaint. For now, they represent the military’s grandest ambitions for a plane that’s merely an idea but that will occupy more and more time, money and resources in the years ahead.