It's a popular theory that the days are numbered for manned combat aircraft. The US military, for example, is busy playing with the Northrop Grumman X-47B, an unmanned combat air vehicle (or UCAV) shaped vaguely like a B-2 Spirit. But Airbus has a different future in mind.
At a Munich briefing, the European aerospace giant detailed its plan for a future strike aircraft that would replace the Panavia Tornado, an aging strike aircraft favored by the British Royal Air Force, the German Luftwaffe, Italy's Aeronautica Militare, and the Royal Saudi Air Force. But where US firms are trying to replace pilots, Airbus wants to add them. Its sixth-generation strike fighter would depend on two flesh-and-blood humans in the cockpit.
According to the Royal Aeronautical Society, the front seat pilot would actually fly the plane while the second crewman would manage the jet's systems. The formula isn't exactly new – it's basically the same strategy implemented on every two-seat fighter jet. But instead of (or perhaps in addition to) managing the radar, communications, and weapons systems, the backseat passenger would act as a primary command and control asset for UCAVs or more traditional UAVs.
"The German government asked Airbus to consider alternatives for a Tornado replacement that will be complementary with the Eurofighter. In principle, it could be a system of systems - either a manned and unmanned combination. UCAVs will not be at technology state ready by 2030-40 to support Eurofighters. It could be optionally manned, with two crew - one for command and control [and a pilot]," Alberto Gutierrez, the head of the Eurofighter program, told IHS Jane's.
Beyond the innovative pilot strategy, there's a lot about this Tornado replacement, visualized above, that sounds familiar. It'd have two engines and two tailfins, and of course, stealth plays a prominent role. In fact, the Tornado replacement kind of looks like a mix of F-22 Raptor, F-14 Tomcat, and F-15 Eagle. It's a nice looking jet.
But we'll be waiting a long time to see it. The tech for Airbus' so-called Future Combat Air System probably won't be available for another 15 to 25 years.