F-35: A new generation of fighters – Part Two

Introduction: What if the F-35 is the Right Plane, at the Right Time, for the Right Price?
Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters
Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters
Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program
Part Four: Replacing the CF-18
Part Five: The Cost Controversy

There is a tide in the affairs of air forces. Fighter aircraft are entering their fifth “generation” since they were first equipped with jet engines in the mid-1940s. With each new generation, fighters have acquired performance characteristics representing a distinctive improvement in lethality and survivability over those of the previous generation. Canadian pilots loved the CF-104 Starfighters they flew out of Cold Lake in Alberta and Baden-Soellingen in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, but they welcomed the operational superiority of the CF-18 Hornets which replaced them in the 1980s.

The current fifth generation of fighters began in 2005 (almost ten years ago now) with the introduction of the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 was the first of two fifth-generation fighters produced in the United States (the other is the F-35), with a Russian plane (the Sukhoi PAK FA) in prototype and a Chinese plane (the Chengdu J-20) in development.

What distinguishes these aircraft from any other ever produced are three main characteristics: the “stealth” or low-observability built into their design, high manoeuvrability at both supersonic and subsonic speeds, and superlative avionics which give pilots the ability to track multiple targets and engage them with weapons carried internally. The pilot of a fifth-generation aircraft not only has more information available than any previous pilot, but is also better assisted in devising solutions to tactical problems than any before.

With the F-22 not available for export (production terminated in 2012) and the F-35 still in development, manufacturers of high performance fighters responded to demand in one of two ways. Either they took an existing aircraft platform such as the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet and thoroughly modernized it (the F-18 Super Hornet), or they built new platforms to better bridge the gap between fourth and fifth generation fighters – a group of aircraft since classed as Generation 4.5.

Generation 4.5 aircraft include the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a consortium of three European companies, introduced in 2003, and flown by the British, German, Italian and Spanish air forces; the Dassault Rafale built by France after it left the European consortium, also introduced in 2003, and flown by the French air force; and Sweden’s Saab JAS 30 Gripen E/F which is still under development. Not fifth-generation fighters, but highly capable aircraft in domains not dominated by fifth-generation fighters.

The options to replace Canada’s CF-18s, therefore, are quite limited: either the only fifth-generation fighter the United States plans to produce for the next 25 years (i.e. the F-35), a Russian or Chinese fifth generation fighter – neither likely to be on offer from their manufacturers nor wanted by Canada – or a 4.5 generation fighter such as the F-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter, the Rafale, or the Gripen.

 Generation Years Characteristics Examples
1 Mid-1940s to
Sub-sonic, basic avionic systems, no radars or self-protection countermeasures, machine guns/cannons, unguided bombs and rockets. F-86,
MIG -17
2 Mid-1950s to
early 1960s
Supersonic speeds in level flight, air-to-air radar, infrared and semi-guided missiles, radar-guided missiles extended ranges of engagement, radar warning receivers. F-104,
3 Early 1960s to
Improvements in manoeuvrability, significant enhancements in avionics and weapons systems, lookdown/shoot-down capability, with off-bore-sight targeting and semi-active guided radio frequency missiles air engagement possible beyond visual range. F-4,
Mirage III
4 1970 to
late 1980s
Avionics improvements such as heads-up displays and optimized aerodynamic design continued the development of “fly-by-wire” fighters, ability to switch roles between air control and strike missions. F/A-18 Hornet,
Mirage 2000,
4.5 Late 1980s into
the 2000s
Focus on cost-effectiveness measures such as added stealth, radar absorbent materials, thrust vector controlled engines, greater weapons carriage capacity, extended range. One significant technological advancement was active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar allowing fighters to perform limited AWACS functions and be integrated into a network centric battlespace. Some new Europeans platforms incorporated these advances. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet,
Eurofighter Typhoon,
Dassault Rafale,
Saab JAS 39 E/F Gripen
F-16 Block 50/60/70+
F-15 E/K/SG
5 2005 to
A quantum improvement in lethality and survivability. Nose-to-tail low observable technologies integral to aircraft’s design, improved situational awareness with multi-spectral sensors allowing the pilot to “look” through the airframe, “born” networked with capabilities largely defined by software to ensure edge over evolving threats. Uses 100 times the number of parameters of 4th generation to define a potential threat. F-22 Raptor,
F-35 Lightning.
To follow:
Sukhoi PAK FA,
Chengdu J-20


Continue to: Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

Leave A Comment