Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sixth Generation: Rise of the "Super Arrow"?

Joe Green's "Super Arrow"

So far, the "Fifth Generation" of fighter jet aircraft is looking pretty tepid.  The F-22 was simply too expensive and plagued with problems, both technical and political.  The controversy behind the under-performingover-budget, and overdue F-35 is growing to near mythical proportions.  Even the Russian PAK-FA, or T-50, is behind schedule and likely won't see widespread production until 2024 or later.  The Chinese J-20 and J-31 are still very much in the prototype phase and are both likely years away.  Of course, there is always the Iranian F-313...

The general theme of "5th generation" aircraft thus far seems to be one of "over-promise" and "under-deliver".  We can't really blame the designers or engineers behind these issues.  These aircraft were conceived at the tail end of the Cold War, when defence budgets were limitless and the pressure was on to develop new technologies as a way to "one up" the enemy.  Needless to say, times have changed.  Defence budgets have been slashed, and the enemy is no longer an established "superpower".  Threats are smaller, but much more unpredictable.  The actions of governments in Syria, Iran, and North Korea have the world on edge.  A global "hotspot" like Mali, can pop up out of nowhere, seemingly overnight.

Isn't it time to start considering a 6th generation fighter for "new world" needs?

Lockheed's "6th Generation" fighter concept.
It's already being done.  The U.S. Navy has already starting requesting concepts for a "Sixth Generation" fighter under to be known as the F/A-XX.  Although ostensibly it is to be a replacement for the Super Hornet, one could see it as a way for the U.S. Navy to hedge its bets with the F-35C.

So what will a 6th generation jet fighter look like?  That's hard to say, as there has been little more than artist's renderings so far.  Naturally, it would build upon the foundation of current 5th generation aircraft, to include stealth, thrust vectoring, powerful AESA (and better) radar, infrared tracking, and helmet mounted displays.

But what features will make new fighters truly "6th Generation"?  I would suggest the following:

A Boeing F/A-XX concept with a manned version (top) and UCAV version.

UCAV variants.  A 6th generation fighter would share a common airframe with both piloted and unmanned versions.  The UCAV version could be used for more dangerous missions, while the piloted versions act as "command" units.  Ideally, the cockpit would be modular, allowing easy conversion.  This would allow units with high airframe hours to be converted to UCAV status for safety reasons.

The X-51A "Waverider" Scramjet prototype on a B-52 pylon.
Improved engine performance.  A 6th generation fighter should be able to fly faster, longer, and further than current designs.  New engine designs like the ADVENT engine promise to improve on the 5th generation supercruise abilities.  There is also the long-promised but so far unrealized promise of ramjets, scramjets, and the like.

The Boeing YAL-1 with Airborne Laser, or ABL.
Directed Energy Weapons.  That's right, "freaking laser beams".  No longer strictly the realm of science fiction, airborne Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) have seen some much promise lately.  Early prototypes were so large that they took up an entire 747.  Initially intended to swat down ballistic missiles, the airborne laser, or ABL looks to be simply too impractical for long range missile interception.  A smaller version, the Airborne Tactical Laser, or ATL, mounted on a C-130 Hercules met with similar criticism.

The story doesn't end there however, part of the problem with the ABL and ATL was the use of chemical lasers.  They are very large and contain dangerous chemical gas to "fuel" the laser.  Newer developments in liquid based lasers promise enough energy to bring down an aircraft (about 150kW) yet is small enough to fit on a truck, and should be able to be mounted on a jet fighter.  Solid state lasers offer even more promise for jet fighter use, as they pack even more punch for there size.  Their biggest drawback, cooling, shouldn't really be an issue while flying through the sub-zero temperatures of the stratosphere.  Energy weapons would make great air combat weapons.  They are instantaneous, can't be dodged, and work best in high altitude, low cloud environments.


Most importantly, a 6th generation fighter must avoid the mistakes made with the 5th generation.  The 5th generation of jet fighters seem so focused on stealth and BVR (beyond visual range) combat, that they are willing to sacrifice WVR (within visual range) performance and affordability.  This is similar to the 3rd generation fighters, where powerful engines and guided missiles were thought to render the concept of dogfighting obsolete.  The Vietnam air war proved this to be wrong, and 4th generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16 were designed to be just as good up close as far away.  

6th generation fighters should be stealthy, but not have to rely on their stealth exclusively.  They should be just as deadly in a tight dogfight as they are from hundreds of kilometres away.  They should be multi-role aircraft, able to take out enemy air cover as easily as enemy ground targets.  They should be deployable enough to fly to an emerging "hot spot" at a moments notice.

Most importantly, a 6th generation fighter should be affordable.  There is little point in having a cutting edge uber-fighter if it is too expensive to buildtoo expensive to fly, or so overly complicated that it never gets out of development.  New technology is great, but not every system has to be a radical quantum leap ahead of previous systems.  Off-the-shelf technology should be used whenever possible, and thought should be given to future maintenance and upgrade needs.

With the high-roller F-22 cancelled, and the F-35 meeting delays and cost overruns, perhaps Canada should look towards the future and skip the 5th generation jet completely.  A low cost, but still capable jet like the Gripen would certainly meet our needs for the time being, and Canada could work toward developing a 6th generation "Super Arrow".  

Faster, stealthier, deadlier. 

Artist and designer Joe Green has shown what he believe a Super Arrow should look like.  Bigger, more powerful, and stealthier than its aborted namesake, Joe's Super Arrow looks poised to compete with jets like the F-22, PAK FA, and J-20.  Joe believes that we, as Canadians, could develop and build his Super Arrow in time for the CF-18s to retire.  I fear I don't share his optimism in that regard, but see no reason why such an aircraft couldn't be developed as a 6th generation fighter ready to see service around the year 2030 or so, especially if we partner up with Saab, Dassault, or the Eurofighter consortium. (Joe would prefer it we go it alone, but he's not totally against the idea)

Joe Green's "Super Arrow" next to its predecessor. 
I encourage anyone reading this to check out  Joe has drawn up a heck of a beautiful aircraft, and continues to refine the design as he gets input and comments both directly and on the Super Arrow's Facebook page.  It is still a "work in progress" and I think it will be very interesting to see the final result.

[Joe was kind enough to give me permission to use his images on this site.  All images of the Super Arrow remain his intellectual property.  Thanks again, Joe!]


  1. I designed a 7th gen fighter based on the Colonial Viper, which has as much hope of being built as the Super Duper Arrow does.

    1. Every airplane, every automobile, and every spacecraft design start out as a "concept sketch". Some get built, most don't. That doesn't mean its not worth a try!

  2. If you consider that Dassault, EADS, and Saab has already designed and are building their 4,4+ generation fighters. There is a possibility for a collaboration. There are also up and coming countries like Brazil, Southkorea and India who has made major investments in the aerospace industry. Depending on if you want a single or twin engine aircraft you could find a lot of partners to share cost with. Quite a few of those companies are already in a sense international.

    The black sheep in the lot would be the US industry and maybe the French at times, can be hard to work with in these kind of projects.

    There is a need for a future F-16 project of the 2020s, allowing a small budget for future studies and tests should be a non-brainer.
    It will also allow the engineers and technical staff to collect data and integrate new technologies.

    Personally i think that the 6th gen aircraft will be a pure fighter(or at least 75% fighter/25% swing role, the other roles can easily be filled by Drones.

    1. Absolutely. I believe the whole F-35 debacle has actually given new hope to other manufacturers that were contemplating leaving the market. The JSF program is proof that that bigger, higher funded projects don't always result in better aircraft. The Rafale and Gripen are proof that world class fighters can be built independently. The Eurofighter is proof that separate entities can come together and build a world class fighter as well.

      You're right about a F-16 for the 2020s. I think the JSF was originally billed as such, but the F-16's design philosophy was thrown out a window early on in the process. The Viper was conceived as a affordable, light, simple fighter. Since it was such a good design, it became hugely popular and became even cheaper due to economies of scale. The F-35, on the other hand, is expensive, heavy, and complicated. In its case, economies of scale are forced rather than being a product of good design with high demand.

      As far a future fighter being strictly air-to-air, I believe the trend will continue to be multi-role fighters. Not because this is better, but simply to satisfy the budget guys and their love for shared platforms. I believe specialization results in a better aircraft, just look at specialized platforms like the SR-71, A-10, and F-117. These planes are legendary because they were designed for a single purpose, and they all did it very well.

  3. Saab have some "skunk work" about 6gen fighter.

    1. Thanks for posting that link!

      I've seen that concept before, but not in as good of detail. It looks more like a 5th generation concept to me, but still very interesting. I find it hard to imagine Saab building a twin engine fighter though...

  4. The arrow definitely looks very compelling and Canada does have a world class aeronautical industry that could design such a plane. Nevertheless, I would look for partners. So here is my first comment:

    1. Study experiences in developments of fighter aircraft.

    The history of the eurofighter typhoon could teach you what was done right and what was done wrong. This documentary is a good starting point:

    I think two lessons can be learned.

    a) You need a lead nation in the team and
    b) you have to make sure that bailing out of the project comes at a considerable cost.

    I have studied the new arrow home page and he seems to be a very talented designer. I like how he integrated the jet engine into the airframe. But some things do make me worry:

    "The CF-105 Stealth Interceptor could meet all the requirements for the Royal Canadian Air Force. It has a 17m wing span making it much larger than the F-35 and CF-18, it has a large bomb bay, more powerful engines, a much longer range and in general, a much higher threshold of performance capabilities while being considerably less expensive."

    Big is not beautifull in fighter jets. Big means more drag and more weight - everything else being equal. You want your aircraft to be as small as possible. So, I don't like the starting point. Then, he seems to fall into the same trap as the F-35 designers. He wants to please everybodies wishes. The result could be a jack of all trades and a master of none, just like the F-35. So here is my second comment:

    2. Design a long range air superiority fighter

    That's exactly what Canada needs. This must be the overall priority and bombing missions should be secondary. Don't deviate from this goal. If Canada produces such an aircraft then it will be unique in its capabilities and tailored to Canada. Other countries such as Australia or Brazil have similar needs.

    The design goal is difficult. You need a very fast plane in order to intercept enemies before they can run away. However, long range means that you need a lot of fuel, which in turn adds weight, wich in turn reduces the agility of the plane - bad for a fighter..... this can be a vicious circle. The Russians designed the Sukhoi 27 for this role, an icon of great Russian fighter designs.

    1. Keep in mind, Joe's "Super Arrow" is meant mainly to inspire us as Canadians. Some of his "specs" would be rather hard to carry over into production, due to cost, engineering or political reasons. But since he is the artist, that's his prerogative.

      Ideally, I think Canada would do better to adapt the U.S.'s "Hi-Lo" fighter doctrine. A large, fast, long range fighter (like the F-15 or F-22) for interception and air superiority duties with a smaller, more multi-role aircraft for the more "workhorse" duties like close air support and reconnaissance (like the Gripen or F-16).

      Needless to say, beancounters don't really like the idea of multiple airframes and would much prefer a "Jack-of-all-trades" solution. As you mention, this results in a dud like the F-35.

      Perhaps a way to compromise is to buy smaller batches of different aircraft more often. Let's say Canada buy enough Gripens now to meet its immediate needs (say 50). Meanwhile, start the process of procuring a new generation of fighter (like a Super Arrow) for the 2030 time-frame. This new fighter would be more "high-end", but we wouldn't need to replace an entire fleet with them so we would only need 25 or so. Then, in 2050, when the Gripens are in need of replacement, we buy another affordable workhorse keep repeating the cycle.

      The current cycle of buying a fighter fleet all at once, waiting 35-40 years, then buying another fleet is broken. It pretty much guarantees that fighter capability will be greatly compromised in the later years as aircraft wear out and become obsolete.

    2. Sounds reasonable to me. Please also consider that - given sufficient payload - you can convert an air superiority fighter into a good bomber. The F-15E strike eagle is an example as well as the Rafale B. Both are very capable in their role.

      However, you cannot convert a bomber into a decent fighter. The Brits tried to do this with the panavia tornado - conceptually a long range bomber - and developped the tornado air defense variant (ADV). This was a failure. That's why priority was given to the air superiority role when designing the typhoon. The tornado is still performing extremely well in its role in ground attack missions. So overall the plane was a success.

      Canada should buy a dozen of Gripen now and simultaneously start the development of its own long range air superiority fighter. In 20 years - when the super arrow hits the runways - you can still use the Gripen for bombing missions.

      So the high lo fighter mix would be a new old fighter mix. This is less expensive than developing two different aircraft. However, you will always have fairly new and capable aircraft in your arsenal.

      This was more or less the lesson learned from the tornado and the idea behind developing the typhoon. The typhoon is only gradually developed for ground attack missions because the tornado - used by the UK, Italy and Germany - is still fit for the job.

      Furthermore, the typhoon has lots of growth potential, in particular the engines EJ230 (20-30% thrust increase), thrust vectoring control (TVC more maneuverability), leading edge root extensions (LERX, more lift), ASEA radar, meteor missile, conformal fuel tanks,...

      I guess I am biased, but so be it;-)

    3. It's not biased if you have a good argument for it!

      By the year 2020, the UK will be flying Typhoons, Tornados, and F-35s. That's a pretty impressive force of air superiority, ground pounders, and sneaky stealth.

      Australia had a similar mix with F-18s and F-111s, but they have foolishly gone to a all Hornet fleet, much like the US Navy. Unfortunately, the Hornet's range isn't near that to the F-111.

      China and Russia are developing the long range PAK FA and J-20, and continue to operate variants of the long range Flanker. Meanwhile, NATO countries only have the USAF only F-22 and variants of the geriatric F-15. Larger countries with lots of coastline need bigger, long range fighters.

  5. Hi Doug.
    Thought you might like this link. Cheers!

    1. Thank you! I will add that link to the side-bar.

      I love how they compare modern fighter aircraft to Star Wars star fighters. Nobody can say the guys in Saab marketing don't have a sense of humour!

      It turns out the Netherlands, along with Italy, are both having second thoughts about the F-35 as the price goes up and performance requirements go down. Make you wonder...

  6. These clips might be of interest to you aswell btw..

    Swedish Gripens Participating in Red Flag 13-2, Part 1

    Read more:

    Swedish Gripens Participating in Red Flag 13-2, Part 2

    Read more: