While countries are still developing the 5th-generation fighter jets, the most advanced so far, manufacturers around the world are already outlining the future of combat aircraft. Let's take a look at the most promising ones to try and decipher what could be the 6th generation fighter jets.

In the early 2000s, Lockheed Martin opened the wave of the so-called 5th-generation of fighter jets with the F-22 Raptor. The fighters generation, the most advanced to date, share a few common characteristics:

  • Active and passive stealth capabilities for very low observability

  • Data fusion to provide the pilot with relevant information

  • Machine to machine communication to fly as a network

It is worth noting that those characteristics, as well as the whole concept of fighters generation, has been criticized as simplistic, or even as a marketing argument for Lockheed Martin by some of its competitors. The concept of stealth through passive low observable (LO) features, for example, remains a controversial area, as some see it as too limiting for the airframe design and overall performances, while easily countered by advanced sensors.  

In the last five years, several concepts of the sixth-generation jet fighter have already emerged from aircraft manufacturers around the world. While the majority of them are still on the drawing board, a quick look at the specifications and the tactical applications of the most promising ones give interesting hindsight on where the industry is heading.

US - Next Generation Air Dominance

From the Air Superiority 2030 report, published in 2016, emerged the necessity to create a new fighter jet capable of replacing both the F-15 Eagle and the F-22 Raptor. Thus came out the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, aimed at developing a "Penetrating Counter Air" (PCA) fighter jet along with “a family of capabilities that operate in and across the air, space and cyberspace domains.”

This new aircraft would need to have a long-range in order to reach faraway theaters without fixed bases, such as the Pacific. With the increased presence of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems, supersonic speed and stealth would also be a must.

sixth generation fighter jets

(Lockheed Martin)

To fulfill its strategic needs in a shorter period of time, the United States Air Force Secretary Will Roper said the program might take inspiration from the Century Series Fighters that led to the development of no less than six fighter jets (and two canceled projects) in less than six years: the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, and the F-106 Delta Dart, all from different manufacturers.

The development of the “Digital Century Series” would see a reduced number of aircraft introduced every five to six years, incorporating the latest technology available. Each airframe could be developed around a unique capability, with one embarking directed-energy weaponry while another one would focus on electronic warfare. That would allow them to work as a network capable of countering any type of threat.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have all announced they were conducting experimental studies while awaiting the official call for tenders from the USAF.

Russia – MiG-41

After relying on Sukhoi for its last platform, the Su-57, Russia may go back to its second design bureau, Mikoyan-Gourevitch (MiG), to create a sixth-generation jet fighter. That is at least what the manufacturer has been putting forward since 2017.