|5th Generation fighters. Clockwise from upper left: J-XX, F-22, F-35, PAK FA.|
One of the buzzwords being used by F-35 proponents is that it is a "Fifth Generation jet fighter". It is often implied that, as such, it is such a technological leap ahead of other available fighters that they might as well be Sopwith Camels. Is it really the case? Yes and no. Technical superiority certainly gives an edge, but history has taught us that victory is far from assured.
|Korean War enemies: MiG-15 (left) and F-86 (right).|
The Korean War saw the beginning of true jet versus jet combat. Dogfights were fought with cannons and ground attacks were carried out using unguided bombs and rockets. The two archrivals of the Korean air war, the F-86 and MiG-15, were close to identical in terms of performance and firepower, yet the American F-86 shot down ten MiG-15s for every F-86 lost. This was due to the fact that F-86 pilots were often combat veterans, having flown in WWII. In the world of jet combat, pilot skill is still an overwhelming factor.
|First of the "Century Series", the F-100 Super Saber.|
Second generation fighter aircraft showed amazingly rapid progress. The sound barrier was shattered by the use of afterburning engines. High speeds, radars, and guided missiles introduced the concept of beyond visual range, or BVR combat. One could shoot down an enemy without having ever seen it as anything but a blip on your radar screen.
|The F-4 Phantom|
During the Vietnam air war, U.S. forces learned all too well that the day of the dogfighter was far from over. Radar guided Sparrow air-to-air missiles didn't work nearly as well as advertised. Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) complicated things further. Infrared guided missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder worked best fired at the enemy's hot engine nozzle. Early F-4 Phantoms, unequipped with built-in cannons, were retrofitted with gun pods. Later models saw the addition of a standard nose mounted cannon.
|The F-15 Eagle.|
As the Cold War came to a close, the Soviet Union changed its philosophy towards fighter design. No longer satisfied with simply producing inferior fighters like the MiG-23 in overwhelming numbers, new Soviet designs like the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Su-27 Flanker were, in most respects, near equal to or superior than their Western counterparts.
|The USSR's answer to the F-16 and F-18, the MiG-29 "Fulcrum".|
|The Eurofighter Typhoon: Not quite "Fifth Generation" but close.|
The United State's response to the Fulcrum and Flanker was to produce the undisputed king of the skies. Proposals were made for an "Advanced Tactical Fighter" or ATF. After years of development, the F-22 Raptor emerged as the world's first, and so far only, operational fifth generation fighter. Meant to replace the aging F-15, the F-22 stood out in following ways.
|The first, and so far, only Fifth Gen fighter in service: The F-22.|
- Stealth: Using radar absorbing materials and designs to reduce radar signature.
- Supercruise: Using powerful, efficient engines to achieve supersonic speed without afterburners.
- Supermaneuverability: Using advanced flight control, thrust-vectoring, and/or aerodynamics to achieve agility unheard of in previous designs.
- Advanced sensors: Using modern AESA radars, data links, and infrared tracking systems to provide a clearer picture of the battlefield.
|The newest contender: The Chengdu J-20|
|Early Boeing concept drawing for a sixth generation "F/A-XX"|