Machines of Marvel: Fifth Generation jet fighters


Redheesh R.J
Final Year Mechanical 2010-14

Even centuries before the first known aircraft was built, mankind was fascinated about the machines that could fly. Even in Indian Mythology and vedic texts, written millenniums ago had expressed the ideas of aircrafts. And interestingly many describe their use in warfare. Like in the mythology, a prime use of aircrafts was in the field of aerial warfare. First world war which broke out just a decade after the first aircraft by Wright brothers saw the use of these flying machines in warfare. The world war actually fueled the innovations in the fields of aeronautics and forced designers to come with radical designs and better equipments. But the progress was slow as the engine remained the same. The propeller driven aircrafts were reaching their ultimate limits of operational abilities. But the 1930’s saw an alternative way of powering aircrafts and thus the Jet Engines were born. In 1939 the aircraft Heinkel He-170 became the first ever Jet aircraft (fully powered by turbo jet) built. As you all may know, it marked the beginning of new era in the human history.

The first ever operational jet fighter was the Messerschmitt Me 262, created by the Germans during the Second World War. And no wonder it became the fastest conventional aircraft in the Second World War. There after the world saw only jet fighter aircrafts. It has become common in the aviation community to classify jet fighters by “generations” for historical purposes. There are no official definitions of these generations; rather, they represent the notion that there are stages in the development of fighter design approaches, performance capabilities, and technological evolution.

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Sukhoi/HAL FGFA:

The latest generation of fighter aircrafts is the fifth generation. And the term “Fifth generation” was first used by united states to refer to it’s most advanced fighter jet. Even though there is an international dispute about the coinage of the particular term, there’s no doubt that the jet fighters in this class are simply unmatched. The fifth generation aircrafts are very much similar to their 4.5 generation cousins in many aspects, but there exists serious differences in capabilities and technologies used both.

The constant upgrades and add-ons to the existing 4.5 jet fighters like Sukhoi-30, F-16, F-18, Euro Fighter, Rafale etc make it hard to distinguish who belongs in which generations (The latest Euro Fighter typhoon, F 18 super hornet, Sukhoi 30 Mki etc  have some of the 5 generation technologies incorporated in them). In midst of all this confusion and controversies there exist a handful of jet fighters (Operational or on trials) which are truly 5th generation in it’s capabilities. Let us try to know a bit more about these amazing flying fighting machines a little more.

Mighty Beasts-5th generation jet fighters

5th generation fighter planes are super capable and super expensive. The technology inputs to these are so massive and high-tech that even the best aircraft manufacturers are finding it hard so go ahead. Let us have a look at few of the fifth generation fighter planes that are in service or in development.

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Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor:

There’s no point in reading this article if you don’t find F-22 Raptor as the first plane to be mentioned. Yes, it is this amazing jet fighter which propelled the military aviation industry into the 5th generation. F-22 Raptor is the only operational 5th generation aircraft in the whole world. Conceived in late 90s and went operational in 2005, it’s purpose was to replace the aging F-16 fleet in US air force and till this date it have done a great job(despite it’s 300+ million dollar price tag)  The technologies that are used in this aircraft were so ground breaking that many thought US government was having alien technology !!( No wonder why starscream from Tranformers movie chooses to be an F-22). Technology and capability of F-22 was so good that US senate decided not to export it to even NATO allies. It was truly a machine before it’s time.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II:

It was the result of the famous Joint Strike Fighter program by the NATO allies. The major development was done in US with additional funding from UK and other allies. It was aimed initially as a jet fighter for the navy with hovering abilities but later extended as a multi-role fighter jet. The program is under development and is nearing it’s final stages. Even though it’s based on F-22 Raptor, it’s abilities are inferior to F-22. It is basically a cheaper export type multi-role fifth generation fighter jet when compared to F-22.

Sukhoi PAK FA/T-50:

It is the fifth generation fighter aircraft developed by Russian Aircraft manufacturer. Done it’s first flight in 2010 and is undergoing various test flights. It incorporate 5th generation technologies and is considered as a reply to American F-22 Raptors. But the critics world wide are doubting it’s ability to match F-22 especially after delays in development schedule. It will form the basis for the development of Sukhio/HAL FGFA.


Sukhoi/HAL FGFA:

It is twin seated fifth generation fighter aircraft developed jointly by Indian(HAL) and Russian(Sukhoi) firms. It will be based on the existing Sukhoi PAK FA. The primary user for the project will be Indian Air force. Two prototypes will be developed seperatly by India and Russia (Russian model will be single seated). It is expected to be introduced before 2020. It will be fitted with both indigenous and foreign weapon systems. One of the interesting weapon system will be the Hyper sonic Brahmos Air-to-Air, Air-to-Ground missiles that are currently in development. India is also planning for another fifth generation fighter aircraft, AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) especially for Navy.

Chengdu J-20:

J-20 is a fifth generation fighter aircraft designed and developed by china. As for all Chinese military equipment, J-20 also faced serious criticism for steeling technology and over estimated abilities. Despite the odds J-20 had it’s short first flight of 15 mins in January 2011. Western (As well as eastern) critics are seriously doubting J-20’s fifth generation capabilities due to it’s design and china’s lack of experience in superior aircraft designing. J-20 have a larger airframe than any operational or proposed fifth generation fighter planes and this adds to confusion. Many critics say that it will be a wonder if Chinese could make something as large as current design to be stealth.

Under the Frame-Technologies involved:

What set apart the 5th generation jet fighters from it’s close cousins in 4.5th generation are the capabilities and technologies that are incorporated in it. There exists a number of it and some are still unknown. Few of the known capabilities and technologies are:

Stealth or LO technology :

One of the most important capabilities of a 5th generation fighter is it’s superior stealth capabilities, which in simple terms is the ability of a particular aircraft (or anything) to have a less radar cross section and virtually impossible to get detected in radar. Even when fully armed, these aircrafts are expected to have stealth capabilities and a very low radar cross section. To achieve this kind of superior stealth capabilities, many parameters are refined. One of the most important aspect is about the aircraft shape. The airframe is so shaped that it doesn’t allow the incoming radar signals to reflect back to it’s source. Keeping all weapons and payload with in the main frame is very key to achieve this kind of stealth (internal weapon bays). All kinds of radar reflective shapes are eliminated to the maximum possible extent. Another way through which stealth is improved is by making the outer skin of the aircraft from radar transparent materials or of radar absorbing materials (RAM). Radar absorbing materials are usually applied as special coatings and paints on the airframe. Using nonmetallic materials for particular portions of the airframe could also reduce the aircrafts radar cross-section and thus give better stealth property. Stealth forms the most important feature of a fifth generation aircraft and it is surely one which is hard to replicate. Thus fighting a 5th generation fighter using conventional radar will be like trying to hit a target that you don’t know where.

LIPR (Low probability of intercept Radar):

LPIR sytems are designed to reduce the chance of radar signal from being detected by the enemy using Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). Usually when using a conventional radar in an aircraft to track or target, the radar signals could be detected by enemy installations or aircrafts with proper warning systems. But if the LPIR is incorporated, it gives the aircraft the ability to track an enemy without being detected by RWR. This kind of invisibility is achieved by the use of a larger bandwidth for operating frequencies and by having a large number of operating elements. The modern AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) systems include LPIR technology. AESA in 5th generation jet fighters serves many other roles than just a traditional radar. They can also be used as a RWR. Different fighter jets use different AESA devices manufactured by different firms. These kinds of systems are also mounted on many 4.5th generation jet fighter jets nowadays.

High Performance Airframes:

High performance airframes with great aerodynamic property are essential features of any modern day aircrafts. The 5th generation aircrafts also incorporate state of the art airframe designs which are made up of latest composite materials. Materials like carbon fibre and other lighter composites which are super durable and super strong are being used in 5th as well as some 4.5th generation fighter jets. Glass cockpits which are void any traditional mechanical gauges are also used. These “exotic” materials used for airframe is one of the key factors behind the overwhelming price production cost of 5th generation fighter jets over it’s predecessors.

Advanced Avionic and Weapon systems:

This will include all kind of latest avionics equipments like flight electronics, targeting systems (helmet mounted display), integrated electronic warfare system (INEWS) technology, integrated communications, navigation, and identification (CNI) avionics technology and a highly advanced software systems to coordinate all the sophisticated elements in the aircraft. Weapons used in 5th generation fighter are also important. Some of these are tailor made for each aircraft. Weapon guidance systems use a variety of sensors and means to keep track of target even in midst of heavy counter electronic jammers. Certain missiles are specially designed for 5th generation fighters and can only be used with these aircrafts. (Hovering ability is provided in some designs as per the purpose of it)

Improved Situational Awareness:

One of the aspects which separate the 5th generation fighter planes from the earlier generation is its improved situational awareness capabilities. Situational awareness of a fighter aircraft simply means the ability of the aircraft systems to bring out the correct and adequate information thought simplest methods to the pilot and thus being able to reduce any possible human errors. Many advanced technologies are applied in 5th generation jet fighters to improve their situational awareness. This will include  situational Awareness IRST (Infra red Search and track) or SAIRST sensors, which constantly tracks all targets of interest around the aircraft so the pilot need not guess when he glances. These sensors, along with advanced avionics, glass cockpits, helmet-mounted sights and improved secure, jamming-resistant LPI datalinks are highly integrated to provide multi-platform, multi-sensor data fusion for vastly improved situational awareness while easing the pilot’s workload.

Network Centric Combat Capabilities:

Beyond all it’s abilities what makes 5th generation aircrafts so unique than the older ones is it’s network centric combat capabilities. In the modern war scenario unlike the olden times, a single machine couldn’t do much tasks, even despites it’s superior quality. This have led to the implementation of network centric combat. Here the group of aircrafts will be linked through a network during combat and share the information in real time to each other. This transforms a group of aircrafts into a super large war machine. Tactical planning and execution could be easily done through this approach. 5th generation fighter planes are specially designed for network centric warfare. These machines have specialized command centers, integrated software systems, powerful computers and networks to provide superior abilities in network centric combat. Recently some of the 4.5th  generation jet fighters are also being modified for network centric warfare.

Future: 6th Generation

A sixth generation jet fighter is a conceptual airplane expected to enter service in the United States Air Force and United States Navy in 2025–30 timeframe. With the Chinese Chengdu J-20 and the RussianIndian Sukhoi PAK FA under development, the need for of a sixth generation fighter may be urgent for the US military. The USAF seeks new fighter for the 2030–50 period named the “Next Generation Tactical Aircraft”/”Next Gen TACAIR”. The US Navy looks to replace its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets beginning in 2025 with the Next Generation Air Dominance air superiority fighters.

The race for air superiority will continue for ever because the victory and defeat in any future conflicts will be decided by these Machines of Marvel.





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