Friday, April 6, 2012

A Sixth Generation Fighter: Reading Firefox

Tom Clancy is widely remembered as the inventor of the military techno-thriller, but he was preceded by a century-long tradition of writing about future wars and espionage involving imaginary weapons. Among others, Ian Fleming, Martin Woodhouse and Frederick Forsyth laid crucial groundwork – and Craig Thomas has a claim to being the genre's originator with 1977's Firefox.

That novel had British intelligence sending American Vietnam War veteran, and former aggressor squadron pilot, Mitchell Gant into the Soviet Union to steal a prototype MiG-31 fighter--the titular "Firefox." The MiG-31 is depicted as an extreme long-range fighter capable of speeds of up to Mach 6, controlled by a mind-machine interface and invisible to radar--capabilities which, it was feared, would give the Soviet Union air superiority in the event of a conflict unless the West could match it, necessitating Gant's grabbing it and flying it out of the country.

As is usually the case with stories of the type, technical detail takes a backseat to the demands of storytelling, and our increased sophistication about such matters nearly four decades on (as the capabilities of '80s-era aircraft are no longer wholly a matter of speculation) makes some of his speculations seem rather naive. Still, in line with Thomas's depiction, super-cruising and stealth are now characteristic of fifth-generation fighters, like the American F-22, and the Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20 programs. Indeed, stealth technology has gone beyond what he anticipated, in that stealthy aircraft have reduced infra-red signatures, something the MiG-31 lacked, while their sensors and avionics are in many respects even more advanced (with features like active phased array radars and helmet-mounted sights), and their performance more versatile (with thrust-vectoring enhancing their maneuverability). However, hypersonic speed and control via mind-machine interfaces remain far beyond the capabilities of this generation of aircraft, as does the range of the Firefox (3,000 miles, which it manages in the story despite its full-speed flight, which somehow it manages at low altitude, where it flies for long stretches; its carrying full armament; and its evasive maneuvering during a good deal of aerial combat).

Might such capabilities be part of the sixth-generation, however? Certainly the X-15 achieved hypersonic flight almost a half century ago, but (longstanding rumors about the Aurora notwithstanding) such capability has remained the purview of experimental aircraft. Moreover, even were these to be made viable for service, it remains to be seen that a hypersonic-capable aircraft can be made versatile enough for the air superiority mission--able to operate effectively at low altitudes and low speeds as well as high, to dogfight as well as to make high-speed intercepts--let alone to perform other tactical missions, like close-air support. Should such planes fail to materialize, hypersonic fighters would only be possible with a return of air forces to a wider assortment of specialized aircraft (like what we saw in the second generation of jet fighters, which was divided between high-speed interceptors like the F-104 Starfighter and "fighter-bombers" like the F-105 Thunderchief). This arrangement, awkward even then, is all the more problematic now as a result of the skyrocketing cost of procurement programs.

Naturally, I have to admit I'm doubtful about either prospect materializing, and suspect that if we do get a generation of high-performance fighters after the F-22, these higher speeds will not be part of the package. That leaves the mind-machine interfaces. Certainly neuroscience is seen as an excitingly dynamic field now, and the gurus of techno-hype are abuzz with speculation about the feasibility of neural control of technology (combat aircraft included), seemingly supported by demonstrations in which the brain activity of people and animals controls electronic devices--but such have been ongoing for quite some years now, without practical consequences. Not only does the well-publicized thought-controlled wheelchair remain in the lab, without anything like an anticipated date for actual availability even mentioned (according to the most recent report I have been able to find, this March 2012 piece from the BBC), but even toys based on the principle (often a precursor to practical applications) seem nowhere close to hitting the market.

That does not mean this is an area which may never yield results--but it is a reminder that this technology's near-term practicality is far from being a resolved matter. Moreover, even if such technology were to come into use as an aid to the disabled, for example (as I hope it will), it remains to be seen that this will be suited to the control of high-performance aircraft in combat situations--quite a different thing. Additionally, if ongoing work in artificial intelligence turns out to yield the results promised for it, that may mean an alternative method of control which may prove superior, or simply more cost-effective than a fighter directly controlled by the human mind. In short, not only must the technology overcome significant hurdles to be usable in this capacity, but it is necessarily in competition with that other technology which may make such a vast difference in how the coming decades plays out, "strong" AI.

'90s Flashback: Reading The Extreme Future
A Sixth Generation Fighter: Artificial Intelligence?
A Sixth Generation Fighter: Flight Control Systems?
A Primer on the Technological Singularity
A Sixth-Generation Fighter?

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