What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters?

What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters? Explore the groundbreaking advancements in fifth-generation fighters that distinguish them from their predecessors.

What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters?

Fifth-generation fighters are the most advanced type of military aircraft. They are superior in design and have advanced capabilities. Renowned entities such as Lockheed Martin in the United States, Chengdu Aerospace Corporation in China, and JSC Sukhoi Company in Russia have developed six different variants of these aircraft. These projects have significantly contributed to the evolution of aeronautics.

Fifth-generation fighters are designed to fly at sustained supersonic speeds, and they have advanced avionics systems. In contrast, fourth-generation fighters are mainly used for short-range aerial combat. While both types of fighters share certain characteristics, they also have significant differences that highlight the diversity within the fifth-generation category.

In 2009, Lockheed Martin, the makers of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, described fifth-generation fighters as planes that can dominate any threat and are flexible enough to work in joint operations. These planes are highly advanced, with improvements in safety, power, and versatility. They can handle various conditions, making them adaptable to different environments.

Furthermore, these jets are defined as stealth aircraft. This category incorporates a series of technologies designed to minimize its visibility to enemy systems, mitigating its detection through reflections, radar emissions, infrared signals, radio frequencies and sound.

Development and deployment of fifth-generation fighters

Manufacturers spent several years developing prototypes for fifth-generation fighters. This involved exhaustive battery of tests before their operational introduction. The F-22 variant was the pioneer in this classification and was initially developed in the late 1990s. However, it was not operationally deployed until 2005. On the other hand, the F-35A made its first flight in 2006 and was officially adopted by the US Marine Corps a decade later.

What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters?
A35-010 and A35-009, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter fly in formation with F/A-18 Hornets. Image credit: CPL David Gibbs/ © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

With the arrival and operational success of these two North American variants, a before and after was marked in the global military sphere, encouraging other powers to develop their own fifth-generation fighters.

In this context, China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation began the development of the J-20, nicknamed “Mighty Dragon,” in 2011, with its incorporation into the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 2017. In parallel, the Russian JSC Sukhoi Company Development of the Su-57 began in 2010 and did not reach operational status until 2020.

Although the engine configuration varies between models, some with one and others with two, there are several distinctive characteristics common to all fifth-generation fighters, among which the following stand out:

Characteristic Description
Supermaneuverability Facilitates the execution of advanced tactical maneuvers impossible with traditional aerodynamic maneuverability techniques.
Improved Situational Awareness Thanks to advanced network data fusion, which significantly increases operational security in combat scenarios.
Multitasking Capability Also known as multifunction combat capability, it includes command and communication control operations.
Cutting-edge Avionics Incorporates radars with a low probability of interception, optimizing the evasion of radar detections.
Stealth Technology Designed to minimize the visibility of the device, reducing its detectability by adversaries.

 

These characteristics not only define the technological superiority of fifth-generation fighters but also establish a new paradigm in modern air strategy.”

Evolution of stealth in fighters: From night to daylight

What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters?
J-20

According to Lockheed Martin, the stealth concept was pioneered with the F-117 Nighthawk, an aircraft that transformed military tactics by enabling precise, lone strikes at night, setting a new standard in operations in hostile environments. However, this initial innovation had limitations, such as reduced maneuverability and lack of versatility in combat roles, complicating pilot operations.

With the advent of fifth-generation fighters, Lockheed Martin has refined stealth technology, adapting it to day and night combat missions in any environment and against any threat.

The improvement in maneuverability is evident in the current F-22 and F-35 models, where integration has been prioritized from the low observability design, involving the shape of the aircraft, the materials used, the propulsion systems, and the integration of internal weapons, fuel, avionics and sensors. This approach results in a platform with extremely reduced visibility, even in full combat configurations.

“The F-35 and F-22 are designed with inherently low stealth, which cannot simply be added to an existing platform,” explains a Lockheed Martin spokesperson. These aircraft incorporate advances such as sensors and integrated weapons systems that, according to SP’s Aviation, provide pilots with significant tactical advantages, allowing them to dominate the airspace and facilitate the safe entry of other fighters.

Supercruise: Supersonic dominance at stratospheric altitudes

What Defines Fifth Generation Fighters?
Su-57

Another notable advancement is supercruise capability, which enables sustained supersonic flight without the need for afterburners, an ability that many legacy fighters do not possess. This flight mode is not only an advanced combat feature but also came to prominence on aircraft such as the Concorde in the commercial arena.

The F-22 is a prominent example of supercruising, reaching speeds exceeding Mach 2.25. Likewise, the Su-57 and J-20 achieve a maximum speed of Mach 2.0. Unlike these, the F-35, although with a lower operating ceiling, achieves Mach 1.6, demonstrating the ability of fifth-generation fighters to operate at extreme altitudes—the F-22 can climb up to 66,000 feet (20,000 meters), while the F-35 reaches 49,000 feet (15,000 meters).

Fifth Generation Fighters

Aircraft Origin First Flight State In Service Built Number Number of Engines Ceiling
F-22 USA 1997 In service 2005 195 2 66,000 feet (20,000 meters)
F-35A USA 2006 In service 2016 354 1 49,000 feet (15,000 meters)
F-35B USA 2008 In service 2015 108 1 49,000 feet (15,000 meters)
F-35C USA 2010 In service 2019 38 1 49,000 feet (15,000 meters)
Sukhoi Su-57 Russia 2010 In service 2020 22 2 66,000 feet (20,000 meters)
Chengdu J-20 China 2011 In service 2017 Up to 208 2 66,000 feet (20,000 meters)

 

With continued innovation in combat aircraft, there is already speculation about the development of a sixth generation, although it is expected that these advanced fighters will not enter service until the next decade. This perspective keeps the global military community constantly anticipating future aeronautical capabilities.