What Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works unit sees for the 6th-Gen. Fighter

28 July 2017
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Lockheed Martin’s (LMT) Skunk Works division, whose legendary history includes the SR-71 spy plane, F-117 stealth fighter and today’s F-35, is working on new technology to ensure that U.S. aircraft stay ahead of adversaries.

While production on the F-35, a fifth-generation fighter, is just starting to ramp up, the Pentagon is already looking at a sixth-generation fighter.

In an interview with IBD, Rob Weiss, Lockheed’s executive vice president for Advanced Development Programs and Skunk Works chief, said a new fighter “hinges around improving lethality, survivability and mission effectiveness.”

Stealth

Stealth will continue to play a major role, especially as more advanced air-defense systems like Russia’s S-400 system renders legacy aircraft without stealth technology, such as Boeing’s (BA) F-15 and F/A-18 and Lockheed’s F-16, too vulnerable in the contested airspace.

Weiss said radars are expanding across the electromagnetic spectrum and moving further into infrared bands, where heat from engines can be detected.

The Skunk Works has technology for improvements across the different aspects of stealth, including a plane’s radar cross section and its acoustics. A Lockheed illustration of a notional future fighter depicts a sleek, low-profile design.

But Weiss hinted at a particular piece of stealth technology that could be a game-changer.

“There is one technology we think will make a huge difference in the new fighter,” he said, declining to give details.

Stealth alone won’t ensure survivability, and Weiss said the Skunk Works division has a broader approach to it that includes electronic warfare and improved situational awareness.

Lasers, Hypersonic Weapons

Offensive laser weapons are still too big to put in a new fighter, according to Weiss, but defensive lasers can be made smaller and should be mature enough to go into the future fighter.

The Skunk Works is ready to demonstrate a directed-energy system on a Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, as requested by U.S. Special Forces, he noted.

Meanwhile, speed is increasingly important to the U.S. military, and a focus at the Skunk Works, as adversaries like China and Russia develop hypersonic weapons, which fly five times faster than the speed of sound.

Weiss said the new fighter could carry hypersonic weapons, though the aircraft itself wouldn’t be hypersonic.

Artificial Intelligence

Tech giants like Tesla (TSLA), Apple (AAPL), Alphabet (GOOGL) and Amazon.com (AMZN) are rolling out new products with aspects of artificial intelligence, and military technology is headed that way as well.

Weiss said the Skunk Works is already putting in “a lot of work … continuing insertion of autonomy in all vehicles.”

“The technology is moving very quickly, and we are moving quickly,” he said.

When asked if there would be AI in the new fighter, Weiss said “sure” but cautioned that the “level of autonomy in the new fighter is yet to be seen.”

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