Sunday, 29 April 2012

Fifth Generation: What does it mean?

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.

First Generation
First generation:  The Messerschmitt Me262.
The last days of World War Two saw the biggest change to air combat since someone strapped a machine gun to a biplane and called it a fighter.  The Messersschmitt Me262 entered service as the first operational jet fighter.  Despite being the most advanced fighter over Europe, it's deployment had negligible impact on the outcome of the war.  Part of the problem was Adolf Hitler's insistence that the Me262 be used as a light bomber, rather than a more suitable role of air-superiority or bomber interceptor.  Allied pilots were also able to take advantage of the Me262's lack of agility at low speeds, and altered their tactics to attack the Me262s at their home bases, before they could get off the ground.

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.

Second Generation

First of the "Century Series", the F-100 Super Saber.
As the Cold War continued to escalate, the governments pushed for air superiority.  Fighter aircraft no longer resembled WWII fighters without propellers.  Jet engines became increasingly powerful.  Advances were made in aerodynamics and radars.  Instead of machine guns, fighter jets were now being armed with early guided missiles and nuclear bombs.

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.

Third Generation
The F-4 Phantom

Third generation fighters took the second generation's radical developments and made them commonplace.  Guided missiles, both infrared and radar guided were now the primary weapons.  Guns were no longer considered necessary, and in some cases, left off the designing board altogether.  Radars were so powerful and speeds were so fast, that close in dogfighting was thought to be delegated to the past.  That is, until, Vietnam.

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.

Fourth Generation
The F-15 Eagle.
Lessons learned from Vietnam resulted in the return of the dogfighter.  It was no longer enough for the jet fighter to be fast, it had to be agile as well.  "Teen" fighters like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18 not only offered exceptional performance as fighters, but they were all pushed into duty as strike aircraft as well.  These aircraft were true "multi-role" fighters, able to clear enemy airspace, attack ground targets, or intercept enemy bombers.

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".

With the end of the Cold War, governments on both sides found themselves needing to cut back on military spending.  Many promising new designs were left on the drawing board, others were too far along in their development to completely abandon.  New technology developed for the next generation of fighters, like Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, modern computer technology, data linking and vectored thrust engines, found its way into the current generation.  These fighters were not considered advanced enough to be considered "Fifth Generation" fighters, yet they were considered a step beyond the "Fourth Generation".  This category includes the so-called "eurocanards" (Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen), the F-18E/F/G Super Hornet and modernized versions of Fulcrum and Flanker.  These fighters are often considered "Four Plus" or Generation 4.5.

The Eurofighter Typhoon:  Not quite "Fifth Generation" but close.

Fifth Generation

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 F-22 has yet to meet its match in the air.  Unwilling to let the F-22 find its way into undesirable hands, export sales were forbidden, leaving the U.S.A. as the only operator.  It has become a victim of its own superiority, however.  It has no real adversary for it to face, each copy costs close to $200 million, and for every hour in the air it costs another $44,000 and 30 hours of maintenence.  In 2011, the F-22 was discontinued after 187 of the originally planned 750 aircraft were built.

The West's only "Fifth Generation" fighter in current production, the F-35.
The saga of the Fifth Generation fighter does not end with the F-22, however.  After the ATF program came the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF program.  Considered as the largest military procurement program in history, its aim was to produce a fighter to supplement the bleeding edge F-22.  Since the F-22 was to replace the F-15, another, cheaper fighter was needed to replace other aircraft that would soon be ready for retirement.  The JSF program was proposed to save money by developing a common, stealthy platform that could be adapted to many separate roles.  Its development so far has been plagued with design issues, cost overruns, and missed deadlines.  Also, despite being marketed as "Fifth Generation" like it big brother, the F-22, the F-35 makes do without supermaneuverability and supercruise, relying on its stealth design and superior avionics.

Russia's answer to the F-22, the PAK FA.

Not content with conceding its position as a major military aircraft manufacturer, Russian design bureau Sukhoi has brought a potential challenger to the F-22's air superiority throne.  The Sukhoi T-50 prototype, known as the PAK FA is clearly a fifth generation fighter.  Stealthy design, supercruise, vectored thrust  (3D as opposed the the F-22's 2D nozzles), and cutting edge radar and avionics will easily put it in the F-22 fighting class.  Although still currently in the prototype stage, the PAK FA is being marketed to other countries.

The newest contender:  The Chengdu J-20
No longer satisfied with fielding Soviet era jet fighters, China recently made it very clear they wish to strike out on their own when it comes to fighter development and production.  Not only have they produced gen 4.5 J-10 fighter, but they have recently revealed their own 5th generation fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20.  Not much is know about the J-20 yet for sure, but it is obviously a stealthy design and will more than likely be close to the F-22 and PAK FA in performance, including supercruise, superagility, and AESA radar.  Whether or not the J-20 will be marketed to other countries remains to be seen, but seems likely.

Sixth Generation

Early Boeing concept drawing for a sixth generation "F/A-XX"
No other fifth generation aircraft are known to be in development at this point, but the U.S. Navy has recently announced its F/A-XX fighter program, looking for a "Sixth Generation" fighter to enter service around the year 2025.  This new fighter would incorporate more advanced technology, including the option of operating with a pilot or without.

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