PALMDALE, Calif — Northrop Grumman is still ramping up its work on the Pentagon’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but the company is already thinking about what comes next.
Tom Vice, president of Northrop’s aerospace sector, this week laid out his vision for a long-range, potentially unmanned fighter, featuring laser weapons and advanced “cyber resiliency” to counter threats in the increasingly connected world of 2030.
The Pentagon has begun early conceptual work on a sixth-generation fighter, intended to replace the Air Force’s F-22s and the Navy’s F/A-18s in the 2030s. Early last year, the Air Force began a deep-dive process that will eventually determine what technology and capabilities it will fund to ensure air dominance in the future.
In the meantime, industry is gearing up for a competition in the next decade. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the fifth-generation F-35, is reportedly working on a design for a future fighter concept, while Boeing has quietly released several mockups.
Northrop, a subcontractor on the F-35, will also make a bid as prime contractor for the sixth-generation fighter, Vice told reporters Jan. 14 during a media trip to Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif. facility. The company is involved in several trade studies to determine performance parameters for the next-generation jet, according to Chris Hernandez, company vice president of research, technology and advanced design.
Vice's comments were made as part of a company-organized trip to Northrop's southern California facilities this week. Defense News accepted travel and hotel accommodations from the company.
One major problem the Pentagon must confront is protecting aircraft data and lines of communications in a world where cyber hacking is the norm. The government can’t thwart every cyber attack — instead, it must be able to detect the intrusion and prevent damage, Vice said.
“The human body today is susceptible to infection, so the idea of blocking at the skin surface any infection entering the skin — it’s just impossible to do. The question is, when you are infected, what does your body do?” Vice said. “Your body has an incredible system called white blood cells that attack and try to manage that virus in such a way that prevents it from harming the body. The systems in 2030 will have something very similar.”
The next generation of air dominance will leverage a digital version of a white blood cell, able to inoculate a system to prevent a cyber infection from spreading, Vice said.
Another key consideration for industry is finding the perfect balance of speed and range. Although speed and maneuverability have historically been dominant factors in developing fighters, Hernandez said he believes the future plane could trade speed for endurance. Range will be increasingly critical in a world with limited basing, he emphasized.
“Range and speed are orthogonal — subsonic airplanes have significantly more endurance than supersonic aircraft,” Hernandez said. “So it’s too early to say, but it’s quite possible that the next-gen fighters will have supersonic capability, but maybe not to the maximum extent that we have today in some fighters because endurance is going to be what’s important.”
One challenge for the sixth-generation fighter will be better managing the heat generated by advanced capabilities such as supersonic speed or directed-energy weapons. Thermal management is particularly difficult when you add a high-powered laser weapon system to the mix, Vice said. Today’s answers to heat management are “insufficient,” he stressed.
“How do we think about a high-powered laser weapon system sitting on a supersonic airplane that in itself . . . wants to generate heat?” Vice said. “So we’re spending an enormous amount of time on each of those technologies — one of them was how do we think about harnessing heat and reusing that heat in very innovative ways in the future.”
The Pentagon and industry must also address the question of whether or not the sixth-generation fighter will be manned. But the answer is not quite that simple, Vice said: Perhaps the operator is not physically sitting in the plane, but rather he or she is controlling the mission remotely.
“Do you keep the man or woman in the jet, or do you keep the man or woman in the mission?” Vice said. “I think the jury is out whether you really do need somebody in the cockpit.”
A future fighter fleet could include a mix of manned and autonomous aircraft, lead by a “mission commander” who directs the unmanned assets, Hernandez said.
But mindless robots can’t replace the human brain, which does not require software installations to adapt to new information, Vice pointed out. Northrop is working to design software that can not only learn and evolve, but has a set of values necessary to make real-time decisions, he said.
This technology may not be ready in time for the sixth-generation fighter, but it could be incorporated into the plane in a future upgrade, Hernandez said.
“When you want to teach a human pilot to do something different, you don’t change out their brain — you train them, you teach them,” Vice said. “Why can’t the machine learn? Why can’t it evolve?”