When Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor first took to the skies in 1997, it represented such a fundamental shift in military aviation that it was clear the U.S. was dealing with an entirely new generation of fighter. Slower than its air superiority predecessors, but boasting the sort of advanced technology that no nation on the planet could contend with, the F-22 ushered in the era of fifth-generation fighters: aircraft that were purpose-built to combine detection evading technology with advanced avionics and networking capabilities.

Up until recently, the F-22 remained the only operational fifth-generation fighter on the planet, but with the F-35 seeing combat first with the Israeli Air Force and then the U.S. Marine Corps last year, and China announcing that their J-20 will enter service despite nagging engine problems, the skies are about to see a sharp increase in the number of steath-fighter sorties being flown from air strips around the globe. So just what is a fifth-generation fighter, and what fighters can we expect to see?

The “Fifth-Generation” Title

In the minds of most, it’s stealth that primarily sets fifth-generation fighters apart from their predecessors. Unlike the fourth generation jets that were provided some limited stealth capabilities as an afterthought, evading detection is an intrinsic part of fifth-generation fighter design. Other elements that are often touted as fifth-generation specific include advanced avionic systems, multirole capabilities, and the ability to “supercruise,” or fly at supersonic speeds without having to engage afterburners. However, both China and Russia’s fifth-generation aircraft don’t seem to have that capability currently. Because of an emphasis on stealth, these aircraft tend to rely on internal weapons bays, but all have external hard points for operations that don’t require avoiding detection.

Perhaps the most important element of the fifth-generation fighter beyond stealth, then, is likely their ability to serve as a networking hub for other air and land assets. This sort of technology allows the F-35 to serve as a part of a targeting system, for instance, helping guide missiles fired from other aircraft or even ships to their targets and vice versa.

America’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

(WikiMedia Commons)

The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the world’s first ever fifth-generation fighter, is still widely considered to be not only a superior dogfighter to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but likely, the most capable air superiority fighter on the planet. Its unique combination of stealth characteristics, speed, and maneuverability set it apart from acrobatic fourth-generation fighters and stealthy fifth-generation platforms alike,

At 62 feet long and boasting a wingspan of 44 feet, the Raptor’s twin Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines  can produce more than 35,000 pounds of thrust each with their afterburners engaged. The F-22 has a combat radius of around 460 miles and can reach a maximum speed (at altitude) of Mach 2.5. Importantly, the F-22 boasts super-cruise capabilities, meaning it can maintain supersonic speeds without keeping its afterburners firing. This allows the F-22 to close with opponents while saving fuel it’ll need in the fight.

America’s Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

(WikiMedia Commons)

Widely touted as the stealthiest fighter on the planet, the F-35 just entered into combat service last year. After repeated delays and cost overruns, the F-35 may soon begin to prove its detractors wrong, as the aircraft is expected to bring never-bef0re-seen capabilities to the fight through its various iterations, which include a vertical-landing capable variant for the Marine Corps and a short-landing and take off version for the Navy.

While the F-35 may not be able to a match its older sibling the F-22 in speed or maneuverability, Lockheed developers believe it retains its place as the world’s most capable aircraft thanks to its improved stealth and its targeting system’s massive field of view. Further, the F-35 was purpose-built to serve as a data hub, absorbing targeting information from any number of assets and using it to develop what may be the most robust level of battlefield awareness any fighter pilot has ever had.

At around 50 feet long and 35 feet wide, the F-35 is slightly smaller than the F-22, but it also has a better combat radius (at about 670 miles). Its powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F135 capable of producing 43,000 pounds of thrust with the afterburner engaged, giving the fighter a top speed of about Mach 1.6.

Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57

(WikiMedia Commons)

Touted as the most advanced Russian fighter ever to take to the skies, the Su-57 was designed with stealth in mind from the ground up. While some question the validity of Russia’s claims regarding the platform, it seems feasible that the jet boasts a significantly reduced radar signature when compared to fourth-generation Russian fighters like the extremely maneuverable Su-35. Of course, that doesn’t really matter because Russia’s shoe-string budget allowed for the development of the Su-57, but not for its actual production. To date, Russia expects to take delivery of just 12 or so combat capable Su-57s — a token fleet meant to allow Russia the opportunity to claim to be one of only three nations on the globe currently fielding the latest generation of fighters.

The Su-57 measures 65 feet long and about 46 feet wide with two Izdeliye 30 engines capable of producing around 33,000 pounds of thrust each, giving it a top speed (at altitude) of around Mach 2. It theoretically boasts a comparable operational range to that of the F-22, though with so few in existence, it seems unlikely that any Su-57 will ever see real combat.

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China’s Chengdu J-20

(WikiMedia Commons)

According to local sources, the People’s Liberation Army rushed the J-20 through the final stages of development last year, prompted by heightening tensions throughout the region as a result of China’s expanding claims over the South China Sea. The advanced fighter platform’s design phase was already dramatically expedited, many believe, by using stolen plans for America’s advanced fighter, the F-22, accounting for the striking resemblance between the two aircraft.

Experts have long attested that, despite their similarities, the J-20 likely lacks the same stealthy profile employed by the F-22, in part due to the stabilizing canards added to the plane, but also thanks to still-classified methods utilized in the F-22’s construction. That potential gap in stealth capability, however, is not enough to cost the J-20 its position as the third ever fifth generation fighter to take to the skies. Like the Su-57, the J-20 currently lacks supercruise capabilities due to its dated, Russian-sourced engines, but China plans to begin fielding new powerplants this year.

At 66 feet long and carrying a wingspan of about 44 feet, the J-20 may in fact be faster than the F-22, with an estimated top speed of Mach 2.2. once it receives the engines China has promised it.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr

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