There are many fighter jet projects currently in development around the world. India’s HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is one of them

In development since at least 2009, it is intended to enter production some time in the late 2020s and become a full multi-role aircraft to supplement India’s latest jets – HAL TEJAS, Dassault Rafale and Sukhoi Su-30MKI – as well as replace a wide array of older ones.

The aircraft will supposedly feature supermanoeuvrability, supercruise, stealth features and advanced networking systems – all the hallmarks of the 5th generation fighter jets, like the F-22, F-35 and Su-57. But isn’t this a bit odd? There are a handful 5th generation jets still in development – the Chinese J-31 and South Korean KF-21 amongst them – but the leading aircraft manufacturers are looking into the next generation already.

The United States said that the prototype of 6th generation NGAD has already been tested. In Europe both FCAS and Tempest are getting closer and closer to completion. Both Russia and China, while secretive, probably are working on something along those lines too.

There are conflicting versions of how Indian officials themselves view the AMCA. At the start of the development, a decade ago, the aircraft was referred to as a “5th generation fighter jet“ by pretty much everybody. In 2019, Indian Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria said that it is going to be a 5th generation fighter jet with “6th generation characteristics”. In 2020 he claimed that India has a true 6th generation fighter jet in development, possibly listing its features – optional pilot’s presence, loyal wingmen, swarming drones and hypersonic weapons.

On their own, all of these features can be, and sometimes are, present in fighters of earlier generations. But what distinguishes the 6th generation is an emphasis on their fusion – the often-talked about “system of systems”.

While countries are still developing the 5th-generation fighter jets, the most advanced so far, manufacturers around the world are already outlining the future of combat aircraft. Let's take a look at the most promising ones to try and decipher what could be the 6th generation fighter jets.

Fighter jets of the next generation are often envisioned as being command centres for a multitude of drones – from large armed loyal wingmen to swarms of smaller, missile-sized ones. They would also have a large emphasis on artificial intelligence, with an AI co-pilot helping with the control of the complex aircraft.

As for drones, India is already aiming to cover that part: in February 2021 the HAL Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) was presented, a line of new unmanned aircraft, both large and small, that would complement manned jets.

HAL CATS, announced at Aero India 2021, looks like yet another loyal wingman project derivative of Western examples. But it may be something more.

The only thing left is an aircraft that would be designed to cooperate with them. On paper the task seems simple, but in reality, it requires a true technological leap: Western countries have been testing manned-unmanned teaming for decades, and are still far from finalizing the concept.

Beyond that purpose, it is not even entirely clear how a true 6th generation fighter jet would look, or how it would function. Also clear is the fact that when AMCA entered development, the “system of systems” approach was not even there.

It was, most likely, tacked-on to the AMCA when the CATS was envisioned, just like it happened with the Tejas – a 4th generation jet presented as the mothership of CATS at the Aero India 2021 Air Show.

So, there is no chance that AMCA will be a true 6th generation jet – it is a 5th generation one with one feature of 6th generation, the same one the F-35, the F-15EX or the F-18 are going to have when loyal wingmen finally enter into production.

And as for the Indian 6th generation fighter jet Bhadauria mentioned, it is quite likely he did not have a concrete development program in mind – rather, a concept which is being discussed at HAL. I guess we will have to wait and see.