6th Generation Aerial Warfare: Will It be Fought Among Autonomous Drones

The 6th gen aerial warfare is expected to be fought by teams of autonomous drones, with the team presenting distributed sensors and distributed weapons by their spatial separation, controlled by a singular and artificially intelligent brain.

Defence Industry

By Gp Capt Harsh Vardhan Thakur (Retd)

The squadron idiot said, “drones are getting smarter by the day…., while pilots are getting dumber.” It sounded like a joke at first. But then, there’s an eery truth hidden behind those few words. A wake-up call perhaps!

Attempting to catch up with the generation gone by, could be an incredibly expensive affair. Perhaps, meeting up with the next generation is a more efficient possibility. Definitive work on sixth generation aerial warfare started in the domestic aerospace sector in late 2018. There has been a flurry of ideas and innovations, especially by micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). But the most refreshing evolution has been the resurgence of large-scale military aerospace research works in domestic aerospace majors. Domestic research works are often viewed with cynicism. Be that as it may, a quick peep into the probable future follows….

Saankhya Lab

.…After a Recap

Surface-level study of the five generations of jet fighter aircraft, begs the question be asked…, ‘what would be the shape of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft?’ This paper provides the definitive answer. Let’s take a brief recap of the five generations before we go beyond:-

  • 1st Gen (1945-55) – “Advent of jet engines.” Took birth by the end of World War 2. Straight wing, subsonic, manual controls, fixed gunsights. Ex: Vampire, Phantom, MiG-9 etc.
  • 1½ Gen (1950-60) – “Reach for transonic flight.” This happened soon after the first jets. Swept wing, hydraulic controls, gyro gunsights. Ex: Gnat, F-86 Sabre, Hunter, Mystere etc.
  • Definitive work on sixth generation aerial warfare started in the domestic aerospace sector in late 2018. There has been a flurry of ideas and innovations, especially by micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). But the most refreshing evolution has been the resurgence of large-scale military aerospace research works in domestic aerospace majors
  • 2nd Gen (1960-75) – “Emergence of after-burners gave rise to supersonic flight.” This was a gift from rocket technology, which first emerged at this time. Longer fuselage, short stub swept wings, auto-stabilisers, autopilot, close combat missiles, fire control radar (FCR) and its radar scope (display). Ex: MiG-21, Sukhoi-7, F-104 Starfighter etc.
  • 2½ Gen (1970-80) – “The element called Silicon.” Spread of micro-processor technology lead to proliferation of inertial navigation units (INU) and mission computers (MC). Automated weapon solutions game about for the first time, which was projected on head up display (HUD), multi-function display (MFD), integrated along with radar warning receiver (RWR), clusters weapons, runway denial bombs etc. Even nav suite (VOR-ILS-TACAN / RSBN/PRMG) came about at this time. Ex: Jaguar, Mirage-III/V, Viggen, MiG-27 etc.
  • 3rd Gen (1975-85) – “Advent of air superiority fighters (ASF)”. Unstable equals highly manoeuvrable. Equipped with multi-mode radars (MMR), beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, ASFs were indomitable. Ex: F-15, MiG-29, MiG-25 etc.
  • 3½ Gen (1980-90) – “Induction of multirole fighters” equally capable of undertaking air-to-air as well as air-to-surface missions. They were also equipped with new sensors like infra-red search and track (IRST), night vision goggles (NVG), precision guided munitions (PGM), laser designator pods (LDP), anti-shipping missiles (ASM), integrated electronic warfare (EW) suites, glass cockpit etc. Ex: F-16, Su-27, Mirage-2000, Tornado etc.

4th Gen (1990-2000) – “Emergence of net-centric warfare (NCW)” distributing the task of decision making from the fighter pilot to AWACS mission commanders. Ex: Su-30, F-16 new blocks, Gripen etc.

  • 4½ Gen (2000-2010) – “Development of aircraft with enhanced sustenance in air and enhanced availability on ground.” These aircraft were equipped with complete sensor fusion, very high mission performance, multi-spectral sensors, AESA technology, cruise missiles, integrated logistics solutions, health monitoring and prognostics etc. Ex: Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen-E, Su-35, etc.
  • 5th Gen (2005-20) – Heralding the concept of fighter generations was the first fifth gen fighter aircraft F-22 Raptor. It brought in “stealth tech” into fighters, with conformal sensors, internal weapons, super-cruise etc. Ex: F-35, PAK FA, J-20 etc.

 

Trend analysis of earlier generations

Till the 4th+ gen, it had generally been the trend that more powerful machines, with faster speeds, better manoeuvrability and meaner weapons, could overcome the older gen fighters. Aerial war fighting for nations was therefore, intimately linked to availability of two major air power assets:- firstly, the ‘number of fighters’ of various generations and secondly, the ‘number of associated weapons’ in the inventory. There was no great science in war gaming, as the bigger and stronger force almost always won.

Fifth gen deviated from the trend somewhat. Though F-22 was a great performer, it is generally accepted that the 5th gen fighters allow for a slightly deteriorated core performance while developing the low observable bird. The gains from stealth are significant, and therefore the minor step down in performance is acceptable. Largely speaking, 4+ gen fighters can outperform 5th gen fighters in core strengths. War gaming results, however, repeatedly throw up a victory by a small margin, for 5th gen fighters in air-to-air BVR combat. 5th gen fighters also undertake air-to-ground strikes with lesser attrition. A word about air-to-ground strikes; while the 5th gen emerged, development of more advanced ground-based air defence systems (G-BADS) progressed at breakneck speed too. Today it is becoming difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate enemy’s GBADS without significant attrition.

Hypothesis for the next generation

While the 5th gen broke the trend, the 6th gen of the nearest future beckons a complete paradigm shift. Two disruptive factors have emerged – Number one, lethality of G-BADS has already exceeded the capability of 5th gen fighters, disallowing penetration of defences and strike into contested air spaces. Number two, autonomous technologies (artificial intelligence/ AI) and computer vision (machine learning/ ML) packaged into robotic drones are challenging the primacy of pilots in winning air-to-ground battles. Air-to-air battles are the next logical frontier to be conquered by drones.

Sixth gen aerial combat is ready to unfold in two graduated steps. The first could be termed as 5th+ gen of MUM-Team combat (Manned-Unmanned team), while the second step would truly embody the 6th gen characteristics of fully autonomous drone-combat.

“Large packages yield immense information. Info-overload plummets SA of pilots, whereas the same info feeds into the brain of AI based drones, which gain SA rapidly.”
*SA – Situational Awareness

What’s the shape & size of 6th gen fighters…?

So, the individual fighter aircraft of the 6th generation is indeed going to be a mid-sized asset which belongs to a larger team of assets and controllers. The aircraft would incorporate a stealthy shape with top mounted intake(s) for its low bypass, turbofan, after-burning, engine(s), and would house internal weapons in its belly and wing-fuselage joints. It would incorporate the smallest size practicable. The size would probably be half that of a jet fighter, just adequate for two medium calibre, air-to-ground cruise missiles and two air-to-air BVR missiles, with (only) the nose, large enough to accommodate a fighter AESA radar. The max all-up-weight would probably be in 8-tonne category with a total powerplant rating of about 25 kN in dry power and 40 kN with reheat. A transonic flying-wing, stealthy shape with non-reheated engine(s) would probably be the choice for surveillance and attack roles, while a supersonic, low observable shape with reheated engine(s) may be the preferred option for interceptor and air defence roles.

Sixth gen aerial combat is ready to unfold in two graduated steps. The first could be termed as 5th+ gen of MUM-Team combat (Manned-Unmanned team), while the second step would truly embody the 6th gen characteristics of fully autonomous drone-combat

Concluding Remarks

“Pilots are lazy, unintelligent and vulnerable. Some are brave and go it solo. These ones will get knocked down the quickest.”
The 6th gen aerial warfare is expected to be fought by teams of autonomous drones, with the team presenting distributed sensors and distributed weapons by their spatial separation, controlled by a singular, artificially intelligent brain. Typically, a team of four drones would exceed the capability of a 5th gen aircraft in air-to-ground and air-to-air roles but, cost significantly lesser to build, operate and maintain. Typically, a team of lesser than 16 interceptor drones would be able to blockade a four-ship strike formation of 5th gen fighters. Most if not all strikes would be undertaken by heavily armed flying-wing shaped drones. Air forces which embark upon this path and arm themselves expeditiously, shall perhaps find themselves at a lesser disadvantage in 6th generation aerial warfare.
(Disclaimer: Hypersonic weapons are emerging and hypersonic aircraft would possibly carry nuclear payloads across long distances. But they would probably continue to be stand-alone, very expensive, one-time use assets.)

– The author is a fighter pilot, who has served IAF for two and a half decades. He is presently an experimental test pilot at HAL.

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