Fifth generation fighter

A fifth-generation jet fighter is a fighter aircraft classification used in the United States and elsewhere encompassing the most advanced jet fighter generation as of 2013. Fifth-generation aircraft are designed to incorporate numerous technological advances over the fourth generation jet fighter. The exact characteristics of fifth generation jet fighters are controversial and vague, with Lockheed Martin defining them as having all-aspect stealth even when armed, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), high-performance air frames, advanced avionics features, and highly integrated computer systems capable of networking with other elements within the theatre of war for situational awareness.[1] The only currently combat-ready fifth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 2005.[2][3][4]



Previous generation stealth aircraft, such as the B-2 Spirit and F-117 Nighthawk, were designed to be bombers, lacking the LPI Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, low probability of intercept (LPI) data networks, aerial performance, and air to air weapons necessary to engage other aircraft.[5] In the early 1970s, various American design projects identified stealth, speed, and maneuverability as key characteristics of a next generation air to air combat aircraft. This led to the Request for Information for the Advanced Tactical Fighter project in May 1981, which resulted in the F-22.[6]

The USMC is leveraging the USAF's experience with "fifth-generation air warfare" in the F-22, as they develop their own tactics for the F-35.[7]

According to Lockheed Martin, the only fifth-generation jet fighter currently in operational service is their own F-22 Raptor.[2][8] US fighter manufacturer Lockheed Martin uses "fifth generation fighter" to describe the F-22 and F-35 fighters, with the definition including "advanced stealth", "extreme performance", "information fusion" and "advanced sustainment".[2] Their definition does not include supercruise capability, which has typically been associated with the more advanced modern fighters, but which the F-35 lacks.[9] Lockheed Martin attempted to trademark the term "5th generation fighters" in association with jet aircraft and structural parts thereof,[10] and has a trademark for a logo with the term.[11]

The rapid development of the Sukhoi PAK FA may see a rival for the F-35 in the future. Russian and Chinese fifth generation fighters are expected to enter further development/service in 2017, which is also the predicted year that the F-35 program will enter the same stages.[12]


In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union outlined the need for a next-generation aircraft to replace fourth-generation fighter aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 in frontline service. Two projects were proposed to meet this need, the 4.5th generation fighter aircraft: Sukhoi Su-47 and the Mikoyan Project 1.44 (although later modernized MiG-35 to 4.5th generation fighter). In 2002, Sukhoi was chosen to lead the design for the new combat aircraft.

As the first post-Soviet fighter, Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50) will incorporate technology from both the Su-47 and the MiG 1.44 and when fully developed is intended to replace the MiG-29 and Su-27 in the Russian inventory and serve as the basis of the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA project being developed with India.[13][14] A fifth-generation jet fighter, it is designed to fight against the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. The Sukhoi PAK FA performed its first flight 29 January 2010.[15][16]

Russia is now constructing a new stealth lightweight multirole fighterMikoyan LMFS (aka Projekt 1.27, MiG-1.27) by Mikoyan aircraft manufacturer. This jet fighter is based on the cancelled MiG 1.44.[17]


By the late 1990s, several Chinese fifth-generation fighter programs, grouped under the program codename J-XX or XXJ, were identified by western intelligence sources. PLAAF officials have confirmed the existence of such a program, which they estimate will enter service between 2017–2019.[18][19] Nevertheless, the United States has predicted that it may possess as much as 20 times more "advanced stealth fighters" than the Chinese by 2020.[20] By late 2010, two prototypes of the Chengdu J-20 had been constructed and were undergoing high-speed taxi trials.[21] The J-20 made its first flight on 11 January 2011.[22] China remains dependent on reliable Russian jet engines and advanced radars and so does not yet have an independent fifth generation jet fighter program, according to a Russian news report.[23]

Another stealth fighter design from SAC started to circulate on the internet in September 2011.[24] In June 2012, photos about a possible prototype of F-60 being transferred on highway began to emerge on the internet.[25] This aircraft was named Shenyang J-31 later, and made its maiden flight on Oct 31, 2012.[26]

News has emerged that Pakistan and China will develop an improved Block III variant of the JF-17 Thunder, with possible fifth generation characteristics. The new fighter will be unveiled in 2016.[27]

Other Countries

In 2011 Turkish Aerospace Industries initiated a $20 million concept design phase for a fifth-generation fighter TFX. In 2013 a decision should be made for the future of this project.[28] Turkey is the only JSF member with a program of its own. Turkish Aerospace Industries has stated that the program will cost $120 billion (with engine development).[29]

South Korea's KAI KF-X program was initially intended to produce a fifth-generation fighter, but this was later scaled back to a 4.5 generation fighter.[30] Japan also has project Mitsubishi ATD-X.

India is developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a twin-engine fifth-generation stealth multirole fighter apart from Sukhoi/HAL FGFA project being developed with Russia. The main purpose of the AMCA is to replace the aging SEPECAT Jaguar & Dassault Mirage 2000. Unofficial design work on the AMCA has been started.[31]

Russia will also provide India with an advanced version of the Sukhoi-30MKI, which will have fifth generation capabilities and stealth features. India will be giving 18 Sukhoi-30K aircraft to Russia, to replace them with the advanced Sukhoi-30MKI, which is being christened as "Super Sukhoi" that boasts of fifth-generation features.[32]

The sudden emergence of fifth generation jet fighters has caused other countries to either adopt their own, or if they are unable to do so, upgrade their current fourth generation fighters to the 4.5th generation level. In 2012, Lars Helmrich of the Swedish Air Force testified to parliament that the current fourth generation Saab JAS 39 Gripen would be useless in air-to-air combat by 2020 and that only the 4.5th generation Gripen NG would stand a chance.[33]

Common design elements

Giovanni de Briganti has defined the defining elements of a fifth generation fighter to be:[34]

In order to minimize their radar cross-section (RCS), all fifth-generation fighters use chines instead of standard leading edge extensions and lack canards, though the Sukhoi PAK FA T-50 has engine intake extensions that seem to function somewhat like canards and the Chengdu J-20 designers have chosen the agility enhancements of canards in spite of their poor stealth characteristics.[35] They all have twin canted vertical tails also to minimize side RCS. Most fifth-generation fighters with supermaneuverability achieve it through thrust vectoring.

They all have internal weapon bays in order to avoid high RCS weapon pylons, but they all have external hardpoints on their wings for use on non-stealthy missions, such as the external fuel tanks the F-22 carries when deploying to a new theater.

All fifth-generation fighters have a high percentage of composite materials, in order to reduce RCS and weight.

Software defined aircraft

All revealed fifth-generation fighters use commercial off-the-shelf main processors to directly control all sensors to form a consolidated view of the battlespace with both onboard and networked sensors, while previous generation jet fighters used federated systems where each sensor or pod would present its own readings for the pilot to combine in their own mind a view of the battlespace.[36][37][38] The F-22A was physically delivered without synthetic aperture radar (SAR) or situational awareness infra-red search and track. It will gain SAR later through software upgrades.[39] However any flaw in these huge software systems can knock out supposedly unrelated aircraft systems and the complexity of a software defined aircraft can lead to a software crisis with additional costs and delays.[40][41]

Sukhoi calls their expert system for sensor fusion the artificial intelligence of the PAK-FA.[42]

An automatic software response to an overheat condition apparently has contributed to at least one fatal crash of an F-22.[43]

There is ongoing research to apply Track-before-detect across Sensor fusion in the core CPU to allow fifth generation fighters to engage targets that no single sensor has by itself detected.[44]

The F-35 uses Software-defined radio systems, where common middleware controls FPGAs.[45] Col. Arthur Tomassetti has said that the F-35 is a "software intensive airplane and software is easy to upgrade, as opposed to hardware."[46]

Advanced engines

Fifth generation jet fighters use the newest generation of high performance jet engines and only the American Pratt & Whitney F119 is fully developed. The engines for the F-35 are still under development, the Chinese are dependent on Russian engines, and even the Russians are falling short in the development of the latest jet engines.[47][48]

Situational awareness

Sensor fusion and automatic target tracking are projected to give the fifth-generation jet fighter pilot a view of the battlespace superior to that of legacy AWACS aircraft that may be forced back from the front lines by increasing threats. Therefore tactical control could be shifted forwards to the pilots in the fighters.[49] Michael Wynne, former Secretary of the United States Air Force, has suggested elimination of the Boeing E-3 Sentry and Boeing E-8 Joint STARS in favor of more F-35s, simply because so much effort is being made by the Russians and Chinese to target these platforms that are built to commercial airliner standards.[50]

However, the more powerful sensors, such as AESA radar which is able to operate in multiple modes at the same time, may present too much information for the single pilot in the F-22, F-35 and T-50 to adequately use. The Sukhoi/HAL FGFA offered a return to the two-seat configuration common in fourth generation strike fighters, but this was rejected over cost concerns.[51]

The limits of stealth

Even committed fifth generation fighter users such as the Israelis concede that advances in sensors and computing will overcome a pure stealth configuration within a decade. This is why the Israelis insisted that the F-35 have defined interfaces so that the electronic warfare systems could be constantly improved to match the threat.[52] All known fifth generation designs have extensive electronic warfare systems, partly in response to an incident where the limited EW systems on a F-117 may have led to its loss in combat.[53] Stealth is now seen as "part of the overall electronic warfare issue", in that a stealthy platform is easier to hide with the assistance of jamming.[54]

Critics and alternative definitions

The definition of the term fifth-generation fighter from Lockheed Martin has been criticized by companies whose products do not conform to these particular specifications, such as Boeing and Eurofighter, and by other commentators such as Bill Sweetman:[55] "it is misleading to portray the F-22 and F-35 as a linear evolution in fighter design. Rather, they are a closely related pair of outliers, relying on a higher level of stealth as a key element of survivability – as the Lockheed YF-12 and Mikoyan MIG-25, in the 1960s, relied on speed and altitude."[56]

The United States Navy and Boeing have placed the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in a "next generation" fighter category along with the F-22 and F-35,[57] as the Super Hornet has a "fifth generation" AESA radar, modest radar cross-section (RCS) reductions and sensor fusion.[58][59] A senior USAF pilot has complained about fifth-generation claims for the Super Hornet: "The whole point to fifth generation is the synergy of stealth, fusion and complete situational awareness. The point about fifth-generation aircraft is that they can do their mission anywhere – even in sophisticated integrated air defense [IADS] environments. If you fly into heavy IADS with a great radar and sensor fusion, but no stealth, you will have complete situational awareness of the guy that kills you."[60] Michael “Ponch” Garcia of Raytheon has said that the addition of their AESA radars to the Super Hornet provides "90 percent of your fifth-generation capability at half the cost."[61] And a top Boeing official has called their newest 4.5th generation fighters "stealth killers".[62]

In response to the use of the "fifth generation" term, Eurofighter has made a fifth-generation checklist placing different weights on the various capabilities, and arguing that the application of the label to strike aircraft such as Lockheed-Martin's F-35 is ill advised, and even inconsistent with the aircraft's specifications. Meanwhile, Eurofighter adds "net-enabled operations" as noteworthy requirement and de-emphasizes full-scope low observability as only one factor in survivability.[63] In the same article Eurofighter GmbH appear to acknowledge the remarkable performance of Lockheed Martin's F-22 aircraft, while demonstrating that labels as simple as "fifth generation" may easily be devised to serve the interests of the writer.

Richard A. Bitzinger of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a former consultant for the American RAND think tank suggests that Western Europe's "failure" to develop a fifth-generation jet fighter may reduce these former leaders in the market to also-ran status as the world's attention shifts to the competition between the United States and Asian powers.[64] Canadians Alex Wilner and Marco Wyss of the Center for Security Studies claim that Europe's failure to "keep up" with the F-35 may make the European jet fighter manufacturers close up shop.[65] However Europe may return with a trans-national 'sixth generation' UCAV, assuming that the political entanglements can be evaded.[66] The European Defence Agency has warned that the European $60 billion industry could collapse by 2020.[67]

The Russian Defense Ministry defines fifth generation as including "stealth technology, supersonic cruising speed, highly-integrated avionics, electronics and fire-control systems".[68]

Fifth-Generation Fighters in Service or with Flying Prototypes

General data

Aircraft Primary
Status Service
cost USD
Wing area
sq. m
Max takeoff
F-22  USA 1997 195 in service 2005 150 M 18.9 13.56 78.04 19,700 kg 29,300 kg 38,000 kg CTOL
F-35A  USA 2006 27 testing 2016[69] 107 M 15.7 10.70 42.70 13,300 kg 22,470 kg 31,800 kg CTOL
F-35B  USA 2008 30 testing 2015[70] 15.6 10.70 42.70 14,700 kg 27,300 kg STOVL
F-35C  USA 2010 6 testing 15.5 13.10 62.10 15,800 kg 31,800 kg CATOBAR
T-50  Russia 2010 5 prototype 2016 54 M 19.8 14.00 78.80 18,500 kg 28,800 kg 37,000 kg CTOL
J-20  China 2011 2 prototype 2019 20.3 12.88 73.00 17,000 kg 36,287 kg CTOL


Aircraft Primary
Max Speed
Cruise speed
Rate of
Engines Total
dry thrust
Stealth RCS
F-22  USA 2,410 1,963 3,219 20,000 2 208 kN 1.09 2D [71][72] 0.0001-0.4
F-35A  USA 1,930 1,362 2,220 18,288 1 125 kN 0.87 none [72][73] 0.005-0.3
T-50  Russia 2,100-2,600 1,800 5,500 20,000 [74][75]350 m/s 2 214 kN 1.20 3D [71][76] 0.3-0.5
J-20  China 5,500 20,000 2

Armament and Avionics

Aircraft Primary
X-Band radar
X-Band radar
Radar detection
range 1 m² target
F-22  USA 8 4 Yes - - 240 km Missile warning
F-35A  USA 4 [77] 7 Yes - - 150 km Full
T-50  Russia 6 6 Yes Yes Yes 300 km Forward arc
J-20  China 8

Related Development

See also


  • Spick, Mike. Brassey's Modern Fighters: The Ultimate Guide to In-Flight Tactics, Technology, Weapons, and Equipment. Potomac Books Inc, 2002. ISBN 1-57488-462-X.

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