Throughout the United States’ pursuit of achieving superiority in the sphere of defence innovation, years of hard-learned technological expertise has gone in upgrading the capabilities of fighter jets to make them the very best in aerial combat.
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In the modern era surrounded by 4.5 and fifth-generation fighters, Pentagon’s absolute focus has been on enhancing the stealth technology it currently stands as a master of, following the successful deployment of the feature in state-of-the-art combat aircraft like F-35s and F-22 Raptors.
However, what might soon be upon us is a dawn of futuristic sixth-generation fighter aircraft that will bring with them newer strengths, which may either help to bring out the best in their predecessors or perhaps end up making them obsolete.
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According to reports, the stealth feature which makes the F-35s the most fearsome opponents in the hearts of their enemies (ask Russia and China), could soon be overlooked, due to the American sixth-generation fighter’s greater emphasis on the Electronic Warfare (EW).
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets along with US’ exclusive F-22 Raptors have remained in a league of their own despite the presence of Russia’s Su-57s and Chinese J-20s, all due to the stealth technology, which enables them to go undetected on enemy radars.
The stealth feature in the fighter jet enables the warplanes to avoid detection using a variety of technologies that reduce reflection/emission of radar, infrared, visible light and radio frequency (RF) spectrum.
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Be it combat aircraft, missiles or ships, the primary unit of measuring its stealth or low observability (LO) is the radar cross-section (RCS), with the radar pulse going out from the transmitter, hitting the target and bouncing back.
However, despite the F-35s and Raptors being incredibly stealthy due to their smaller RCS, the presence of renowned stealth killers, the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air-missile-systems (SAMS), stealth is a feature that may not have a very long life.
According to former US Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert,
“You know that stealth maybe overrated,”
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.”
For long, American Aerospace juggernauts Boeing has been of the view that the utilization and up-gradation of electromagnetic warfare and the use of jamming technology is fundamentally more important than stealth.
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EW represents the fighter’s ability to use electromagnetic spectrum waves to either disrupt, intercept, or sabotage enemy electronic systems in offensive operations or to protect interested assets using the same.
The increasing use of advanced electronics in 21st-century weapons makes the employment of EW equipment extremely essential for the arsenal of any modern army, especially when talking about the development of next-generation fighter aircraft.
“It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems – or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them,” said Greenert.
Moreover, one of the key requirements of a sixth-generation fighter would be their overall survivability against sophisticated enemy air defences of nations like China and Russia and according to analysts, EW tools could help improve that.
According to a report published by Washington DC-based think tank, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,
“Navy leaders intend [the future fighter] FA-XX to be survivable in highly contested environments, which it might achieve through a combination of sensor countermeasures and self-defence weapons rather than aircraft shape and coatings alone.”
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Mike Gibbons is the Vice President for Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler programs, which specializes in disrupting enemy sensors, interrupting command and control systems, and jamming weapons’ homing systems.
While speaking to the Business Insider, Gibbons said,
“Today, the need to control the EM (electromagnetic) spectrum is much the same,”
Stealth technology was never by itself sufficient to protect any of our own forces.”
Last month, the Pentagon reportedly built and tested its mysterious new sixth-generation fighter jet, which has been designed and developed as part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.