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Defining the 5th Generation Fighter Jet

By Jeffrey Hood 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

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The term “fifth-generation fighter” or simply “fifth-gen” is used throughout the global military aviation community. For example, in July 2016, when U.S. Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former commander of Air Combat Command, briefed the House Armed Services Subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, he said “Today’s air superiority mission rests upon a mix of fourth and fifth-generation fighters.” Carlisle’s statement implies the subcommittee members understood what he meant by “fifth-generation”.

There is no readily available official Department of Defense or U.S. Air Force definition of “fifth-generation” or any of the other previous generations that preceded it.

Here’s my attempt, as an aviator whose flying career spanned at least a couple of the generations, at defining the generations.

First generation fighter jets exploited technologies first generated during World War II, specifically the jet engine and swept wing technology. The U.S. F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15 Fagot represented the apex of this generation as they fought over the skies of Korea.

Second generation fighters incorporated advances in speed, weapons and sensors of their first generation counterparts. They had increased engine thrust with afterburning pushed fighter speeds past Mach 1 to Mach 2+. In addition, on board radar enhanced night time and bad weather interceptions. Finally, while previous generations relied solely on machine guns, as all fighters had since the first World War, this generation experienced the advent of the first air-to-air guided missiles.

The sleek F-104 Starfighter and the universal MiG-21 Fishbed are two classic examples of the second generation of jet fighters.

Third generation fighters integrated more advanced radars capable of tracking targets at longer ranges with semi-active radar-guided missiles that enabled beyond visual range engagements. Many of these aircraft also incorporated radar warning receivers and, chaff and flares to defeat enemy threat systems. For the U.S., several variants of the McDonnel-Douglas F-4 Phantom were the workhorses of Air Force and Navy tactical air fleets.

The F-4 and its Soviet counterpart, the MiG-23 Flogger, continue to serve in air forces around the globe.

Fourth generation fighters continue as the dominant aircraft in most air fleets. These fighters, which include the F-15 Eagle, F-18 Hornet, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the JAS 39 Gripen feature hi-G maneuverability, digital datalinks to exchange and share information automatically, a “look down, shoot down” phased or planar arrayed radars to target and track multiple targets and thrust-to-weight ratios that approach or exceed unity. Most fourth-generation fighters are multi-role capable with the ability to deliver highly accurate air-to-surface munitions visually, or by laser or GPS guidance.

As fourth-generation aircraft matured, they incorporated several incremental improvements including active electronically scanned array radars and helmet mounted cueing systems to facilitate greater off-boresight weapons engagement.

Fifth-generation fighters truly fuse multiple on-board offensive and defense sensor systems with off-board information to present a smart, networked digital data-presentation to the pilot. Fifth-gen also combines advanced low observable technologies previously incorporated into limited platforms (SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, B-2 Spirit) with advanced handling characteristics on par with, or in excess of fourth-gen aircraft. In addition, fifth-gen may include increased engine thrust that enable sustained supersonic flight without the need for inefficient afterburner, i.e. supercruise.

The most complete description of fifth-gen from a senior Air Force leader may be the statement of the previous director of the Air Force F-35A Lightning II Integration Office, Lt Gen Jeffrey Harrigian. In an article he co-authored, Harrigian wrote, “There are many characteristics of fifth-generation aircraft that separate them from older aircraft. These include, primarily, multi-spectral low observable design features such as radar, infrared sensors, and visual situational awareness tools, along with self-protection and radar jamming capabilities that delay or deny enemy systems the ability to detect, track, and engage the aircraft.

These aircraft also feature integrated avionics, which autonomously fuse and prioritize the aircraft’s multi-spectral sensors and off board data, providing an accurate real-time operations picture for the pilot, and the ability to download data for post-mission analysis.”

Whether it’s a definition like mine, or one like Harrigian’s, it’s time for the Air Force to explicitly define fifth-gen to provide clarity and meaning to this oft-used term.