It turns out that not only other people's children are growing rapidly, but also combat aircraft. It seemed that quite recently we were studying with interest the first information about the American stealth fighters F-22, and suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, the news that a prototype of a new, already sixth generation combat aircraft was tested in the United States. On the one hand, this is natural - the first pre-production fighter F-22 "Raptor", from which the fifth generation began, took off in 1997 - quite a long time ago from the point of view of ordinary human life. On the other hand, the Americans themselves barely brought to mind the next fifth generation fighter, the F-35, and their competitors, including Russia, have not yet reached full-scale serial production of the fifth generation.
That is, fifth-generation combat aircraft are even more than relevant. More than! And it is not entirely clear where and why to rush. But the fact remains - the Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force (yes, it turns out, there is such a ministry in this peace-loving country) for procurement, technology and logistics Will Roper recently stated literally the following:
“We have already built a full-scale prototype and carried out a full-fledged demonstration flight, and we have broken all possible records in this regard.”
The Air Dominance Next Generation (ADNG) program has not been very popular until now. The secrecy that surrounded it was able to create a false feeling that the Americans are quite satisfied with the situation existing in modern combat aviation and are not in a hurry to create a new generation of machines. Moreover, rather, more interesting and encouraging news came from the Russian military-industrial complex - in particular, there were many reports that a detonation aircraft engine was almost ready in the Russian Federation, there was a lot of talk about the so-called "quantum radar", and a year and a half ago there appeared cautious reports that Russia may launch a 6th generation prototype fighter by 2025. Then it sounded both surprising and reassuring - given our catastrophic lag in the fifth generation, the idea of jumping over a step and starting to seriously invest immediately in the sixth seemed very rational.
In part, this information was confirmed by the slowness with which the Russian army purchased a seemingly completely finished Su-57 fighter. Yes, and its refinement to the state of a serial, fully combat-ready vehicle went, to put it mildly, with some kind of laziness. Frankly speaking, there is complete confidence that if Putin had not personally intervened in the matter, having publicly promised to start serial production of the Su-57, he would still have remained an experimental aircraft and a demonstrator of technology. Even the high-ranking military did not have a desire to "bleed from the nose" to get the latest combat aircraft. Very strange, won't you agree? Unless, of course, one assumes that they knew something and were ready to endure a little and not invest in an obviously outdated car ...
Therefore, the latent desire of our military and designers to deceive and overtake everyone was both logical and quite readable. But no one expected such agility from the Americans. Although there was one, but a very serious argument in their favor, they were accustomed to being the undisputed leaders in combat aviation and would hardly have given up this place to anyone of their own free will. All the more so with Russia, with which Washington has gotten into a very bad relationship in recent years.
Almost nothing is known about the first flight of the American car. Even information about where the tests took place, how many prototypes were built, what features the machine has, what structural elements are used is kept secret. It is not even known whether this is a manned aircraft, or an unmanned one. Speeds, flight altitude, stealth technologies - all this is also a secret behind seven seals.
But there is a lot of talk about digital engineering, open software architecture, network centricity and information exchange with satellites, drones, and other aircraft - in general, there are a lot of general words from which it is difficult to extract something specific. How, for example, can you interpret Roper's words that they demonstrated “something really magical”? Is this a new broom for Quidditch? Will Harry Potter fly on it?
This can be partly explained - secrecy. In addition, at the moment, even clear guidelines for the sixth generation machines have not been developed. What parameters are required for it? Hypersound? Complete stealth for radars? The ability to autonomously conduct aerial combat in unmanned mode? Is the flight altitude prohibitive for the existing aviation?
And if so, then the caution of the Americans can be understood - and you don't want to give benchmarks for competitors, and there is not the slightest desire to get into a puddle. After all, something incredible is expected from the next generation, and if we say that it will simply be slightly better in a number of parameters, one can lose funding and remain without work.
So far it is known that in the USA, as well as in the Russian Federation, active development was carried out in the field of rotary detonation engines. If these developments are successful (and this is very likely), a significant increase in the fuel efficiency of new engines can be expected. This, in turn, promises either a sharp increase in flight duration, or a significant increase in the speed and altitude of the aircraft. Of course, even in this case, there is no need to talk about flights in near space, as some experts often do. Although if we mean by this heights of the order of 40 kilometers, then everything becomes more or less plausible.
Another predictable parameter of the new vehicle is the ability to perform combat missions in a completely unmanned mode. This partly follows from the first point - increased speeds, even if not hypersonic, can lead to a significant increase in overloads. And they were the maximum for pilots already in the fourth generation cars, reaching 8q. It is logical to assume that in solving some problems, the pilot will rather interfere with the new car than help - for the sake of the pilot's survival, some aerobatic capabilities will simply have to be limited.
Partly in favor of this version is the European project of the sixth generation fighter, presented by the British in 2018 at the Farnborough Airshow - "Tempest". The ability to fly and perform combat missions without a pilot is considered one of the key parameters of this machine, although it is supposed to be universal - the possibility of piloting is also provided there. It is characteristic that in terms of its other potential characteristics, the new British-European aircraft does not look like something outstanding - neither a radical increase in speed, nor a significant increase in altitude is provided. Strictly speaking, what the Europeans are planning to create can be characterized as a desire to do everything, like the fifth generation aircraft, only a little better.
Of course, we have no right to draw direct analogies, but we would venture to suggest that an American plane could conceptually turn out to be something similar. That is, somewhat better than the F-22, but nothing more ...
Separately, it should be said about the so-called "quantum", or optical-electronic, radars. Developments in this area have been going on for several years already, and Russia already has a demonstration radar created using the ROFAR technology. According to the most optimistic experts, radio-photon scanning technologies will simply destroy stealth aviation as such. After all, the new radar is both more powerful than the old ones, and much more flexible in terms of the spectrum of frequencies used, it can literally create a visual portrait of targets at great distances. And the next generation of these radars is expected to be able to use the paradox of quantum entanglement of photons in their work, which is guaranteed to devalue all modern developments in ensuring the invisibility of aircraft for radars.
That is, just such a prospect could spur the United States, Russia and other participants in the aviation arms race to complete the improvement of fifth-generation machines built “around invisibility”, when everything in the plane is subordinated to the need to minimize radar signature. Alas, if the F-22 becomes visible to radar (albeit a new generation), it will turn into a normal, albeit not bad, interceptor fighter. And if this happens to the F-35, then it can generally be written off and supplied to third world countries - this flying arsenal, without its secrecy, is generally not capable of conducting modern warfare.
Therefore, it is very likely that we should not panic too much about the sudden American test. If the trigger for the United States (as well as for us) is the imminent appearance of new, much more sighted, radars, then it is very likely that the entire "sixth generation" will be reduced to the creation of good, interesting, but quite ordinary combat vehicles that do not promise a single from the sides of such an advantage, which at one time gave the Americans the appearance of stealth aircraft and fifth generation fighters.
And this is probably good. In any case, for everyone who would not like to hide their children from American air strikes ...