6th and 7th 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-performing, over-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:


Boeing's F/A-XX concept.

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.

*AHEM*

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 build, too 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 "Arrow II", or "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 go even go beyond jets like the F-22, PAK FA, and J-20.  Referring to it as a "7th Generation fighter" 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 isn't totally against the idea.)


Joe Green's "Super Arrow" next to its predecessor. 
I encourage anyone reading this to check out http://www.superarrow.ca.  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!]

8 comments:

  1. If you have $15 billion lying around and nothing better to use it for, sure, I guess. Take a good, hard look at what it actually costs to develop a new fighter. The F-35, for example. Or the same Eurofighter, Gripen, Rafale trio you cover here. It's not cheap, and overruns must be expected.

    Now add +100% (and probably more) technical risk by insisting on 6th generation features.

    Add 100%+ to that by using a much weaker aerospace industry as the base, with no experience in fighter design.

    We're already far past the marker that says "lunacy."

    Now throw in design risk by basing it on a high altitude bomber interceptor whose sustained turn rates sucked. Yes, it was still a lot better than the F-104 Starfighter. But if a 1970s design base (F/A-18) is inadequate for Canada's needs when it's the springboard for a 1990s fighter (Super Hornet), why is a 1950s base design suddenly smart?

    It's as if your prefrontal cortex suddenly went on vacation to Florida.

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  2. There's a huge problem with what you are proposing, besides the show stopping issues named above by the previous commentator:

    If a solid state laser can't be dodged, what's stopping a ground-based unit from knocking out an aircraft?

    See, 6th generation fighters are meant to one-up the fifth generation fighters from foreign powers. It's really all very traditional showmanship between world powers, fights that's arn't all that likely given the complex interconnected nature of today's economy.

    The current repertoire of fourth and fifth generation fighters will do just fine against the kind of opposition faced in the future, asymmetric non-state enemies.

    Dogfighting in the mid-late 21st century comes up against direct energy weapons, suicide UAVs and missile systems that make this type of craft far to expensive for its worth.

    Lets face it, the days where conventional armies fought it out in exciting aerial battles is increasingly a thing of the past.

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  3. I'd love to buy a t-shirt with a picture of that super arrow on it.

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    1. Joe did have exactly that at his Cafe Press shop. Odd that he doesn't now.

      He's been "tweaking" the final design, maybe that's why.

      http://www.cafepress.com/itsallaboutcanada

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  4. The Super Arrow? Sure, if we still had anything of the original Arrow program left to improve on.

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  5. Joe's design is huge, likely the biggest fighter design around and I really can't imagine it doing well as a fighter just looking at the size. I am surprised at some features of his design as well, like the canards, how they are adjacent and in line to the wing, though I know not of his occupation and I'm just an armchair fighter artist.

    A channel called Bourdeau Industries (think they are just fans) uploaded a nice short video onto Youtube about the Arrow Mk3. Nice air intakes, but the idea of yet another new TVC 40,000lb engine and flying at Mach 3.5 just made me hope these kids are fake. The PS13 is a very good engine and absolutely competitive if it just could lose some weight, but it did cost a lot of money and helped kill the Arrow. They didn't even get the TVC nozzles shooting in the right direction. I can't find anything on the actual company (they have a site?), but I hope the channel is from a fan.

    Can you imagine a Fulcrum with Draken wings, Falcon nose, and chines extending from the inner wing to the nose in Blackbird fashion? (Running on M53-PX3? :D)

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  6. I think the best that could be hoped for is to make a UAV or UCAV version of the Super Arrow. Canada does not have the means to make a piloted full sized version of either a 6th or 7th generation fighter. The political gambits that doomed the original Avro Arrow still sting to this very day, but even if Canada were to go for broke and try to make a Super Arrow, chances are that other powers would meddle and try to scuttle any such effort, no matter its progress or technical merits. But I do believe that pilotless designs are certainly within Canada's means to make, and there is no reason for Canada not to make at least one of them look like an Avro Arrow.

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    1. Given that our requirements (eg. distance to cover, low support base) we will have more in common with Russia than anyone else perhaps it is time to come back to a made in Canada solution for some of our unique needs. We have heard before that pilots can be replaced by missiles or drones but the reality is there is a constant measures/countermeasures battle. A 6th generation long distance interceptor that can launch combat semi-autonomous combat drones would not be a bad thing considering they would be faster and less expensive than ships patrolling the arctic.

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