Friday, 11 May 2012


Mosquito fighter-bomber, the first "fifth-generation"fighter?

 It has been said that one of the most important reasons for Canada acquiring the F-35 is that it is the only fifth-generation fighter available. So just what is a “fifth generation” fighter anyway?

 By at least one count,  “The US Air force’s first operational jet fighter was the F-80; it was followed by the F-86 Saber, F-100 Super Saber, F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom, F-15 Eagle, F-117 Nighthawk, and F-22 Raptor, each of which represents a generational leap over its predecessor. So, in fact, the F-22 Raptor represents the 8th generation of US jet fighters.” Which, in theory, makes the F-35 something like a 9th generation aircraft!

 Using the same logic it could be said that in Canadian service the Vampire F.3 was our first generation jet fighter, the Canadair F-86 the second generation. This makes the Cf-101 Voodoo the third generation, the Cf-104 the fourth, the Cf-5 alliteratively becomes our fifth generation fighter, which makes the Cf-18 our sixth generation and whatever comes next (F-35?) a seventh generation fighter in Canadian terms.

 Of course if you use the notion of a “generational leap” one might conclude that the Vampire and the Canadair F-86 represented our first generation of jet fighters. Which would make the Cf-104’s, Cf-5’s, and Cf-101’s our second generation; this in turn marks the Cf-18 as our third generation jet fighter. If we buy fifth generation F-35’s, what happened to our fourth generation? Have we skipped a whole generation? 

So what is the “fifth generation”?

 Lockheed Martin’s F-35 website has a page on fifth-generation technologies and recent statements by US Air Force generals, the Canadian Auditor-General and others provide definitions of what a fifth generation fighter is supposed to be. 

From these definitions, it appears that a “fifth-generation” fighter is supposed to have:
-- Stealth; 
-- High maneuverability; 
-- Advanced avionics; 
-- Networked data fusion from sensors and avionics
-- Multi-role capability

The problem with this laundry list of capabilities is that most modern warplanes contain some or even all of them to a greater or lesser degree.

Stealth The F-35’s low radar cross-section and radar-absorbent surface coatings (i.e., paint) make it more difficult to detect by radar, but they do not make it invisible. As well, this is a capability that degrades as sensors used to detect aircraft improve. Most modern fighters are designed to minimize radar returns from at least some angles. This is true, for example, of the latest model F-18 Super hornets and the F-15 Stealth Eagle.

High maneuverability The F-35 has no special maneuverability-enhancing design features such as canard forward surfaces, vectoring nozzles or “super cruise”. Its thrust-to-weight ratio is limited and unlikely to improve. These capabilities do exist on other fighters already in service. Aircraft such as Tornado and Rafale are in fact more maneuverable.

Advanced avionics The F-35 is being equipped with the APG-81 electronically-scanned radar, but this technology is already being retrofitted to previous-generation US fighters like the F-15E and the F-18E Super Hornet. The F-35 also supposed to feature an innovative Distributed Aperture System (DAS), which consists of sensors mounted around the aircraft that will provide the pilot with a 360-degree, spherical view of his surroundings. Unfortunately the pilot’s Helmet-Mounted Display System (HMDS) designed to present this information does not work despite a decade of design and testing. In fact Lockheed has asked BAE Systems to adapt its existing Eurofighter helmet display as an interim solution. 

Networked data fusion from sensors and avionics The idea of fusing data from all on-board sensors is not new, as it has been operational for several years on the latest European fighters in service. French Rafales, for example, use their MICA missiles as additional sensors, and combine their data with that provided by their SPECTRA self-protection suite, radar, IRST, other on board sensors and data received from other friendly aircraft, AWACS, or ground control centers to present a single, unified and constantly updated tactical picture to the pilot. Boeing and the Naval Air Warfare Center plan to add a networking capability to the Distributed Targeting System which will soon be operational on the Super Hornet. Most western combat aircraft are already networked through the Link 16 datalink, which is already in service and being retrofitted to many NATO and allied fighters. 

Multirole capability There is no modern combat aircraft that doesn’t claim to be capable of carrying out multiple roles. U.S. and European fighters routinely carry out widely diverse missions: F-15C interceptor and F-15E multirole/strike, F-18E Super Hornet (Air-to-air; strike/attack and electronic attack), and the F-16 which carries out both strike and interceptor duties. The Rafale is capable of interception, ground attack, nuclear and conventional strike, and reconnaissance missions; it also has a naval variant. The Eurofighter Typhoon is capable of interception and ground attack missions. The Saab JAS-35 Gripen is tasked with interception, ground attack, strike, reconnaissance and naval missions, including anti-ship.

 In fact AESA radars, sensor fusion, networked operations, precision-guided weapons, low observables and other capabilities are relatively common now, and will be widespread once the F-35 finally enters operational service sometime in the next decade. Are they all fifth generation? If they are all fifth generation why are they not being considered for Canadian use? Before our politicians, both in and out of uniform, start throwing PR buzzwords around maybe they should figure out what they mean.