There’s a well-developed discussion going on about the definition of 5th generation fighters – or even if the term itself is at all valid. Sensor fusion, thrust vectoring, supercruise capability, AESA radars and similar terms are being thrown around quite liberally, but the biggest sticking issue is stealth. Low observability is what makes the category exclusive to clean sheet designs, as there’s a limit to how much stealth can be baked into an existing design. Just like F-35 and F-22, a truly low-observable plane has to be designed, from ground up, for stealth. This influences both shape and material composition of the hull, down to specialized coatings.
National projects: in it for the long run
Naturally, Russia is producing its own stealth fighter, the PAK FA (T-50). The multirole fighter had its first flight in 2010 and might be expected to enter service in 2017. As its American counterpart, it has suffered its own fair share of setbacks and delays. It is also closely related to the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, a joint Russian-Indian venture to produce a PAK FA derivative plane for Indian service. The plane will be armed with Indian weapons and will have 43 other internal differences. The Indians also want a two-seater version.
However, while the success of the FGFA is tied to the fate of the Russian program, India also has its own indigenous project in the works. The HAL AMCA, though the production of the first prototype might start this year, is very much a future project. An Indian Times’ source in 2015 claimed that the first flight of a two engine prototype was planned for 2023-2024. In the meantime, India seems to be bulking out its fleet with indigenously built HAL Tejas and courts the rumors of possible French Rafale or domestically produced F-16 deals.
However, it is China that has two national programs that are running full steam. J-20 is a twin-engine plane that’s already entered low-rate initial production. The most surprising feature of the jet is that is has canards, a feature that helps maneuverability, but has a detrimental effect on radar cross signature.
And if J-20 is the Sino F-22, FC-31 looks very much like their version of F-35, only with two engines. It is expected to be at the very least a match for American fifth generation fighters – and a lucrative export option. An improved prototype had completed a test flight in December last year. “Compared with the first FC-31, there are a lot of improvements on the second prototype. Changes were made to the airframe, wings and vertical tails, which make it leaner, lighter and more maneuverable,” Wu Peixin, an aviation industry observer in Beijing, told China Daily.
Technology: the major hurdle in 5th gen development
The production and adoption of all non-Us projects is still far away. “The United States, with all of its experience, expertise, and money, has struggled over the last decade or so to develop the F-35 to the standard promised and to manufacture it to the rates expected and at the price needed,” said IHS Jane’s Aviation Desk Editor Gareth Jennings in an email to AeroTime. “As such, it is highly probable that so-called fifth-generation competitors like the PAK-FA and J-20, will not be nearly as capable as the F-35, and will be ‘fifth-generation’ in appearance mainly.” While concrete data is sparse, PAK FA has a radar cross section that almost matches F-35. However, neither of those jets reaches the heights of F-22, which has the RCS of an insect. It is hard to say anything about the stealth characteristics of the other planes, since many of them haven’t even left the blueprints yet – and stealth relies not only on the shape of the plane, but also the materials used in making it and even panel shapes.
“A lot of fifth-generation fighter technology is classified: for instance, the F-22 is not allowed to be exported outside of the US, and many of the F-35’s source codes cannot be accessed by customers, meaning that upgrades need to be done in the US rather than by the operator nation” said Gareth Jennings. ”Having your own domestic program gives you complete sovereignty over every aspect of its development and operation.” The last point has proven troublesome to Koreans, since Washington rejected their request for the transfer of certain of technological data that would help KF-X project back in 2015.
F-35 to rule the market for years to come
This also implies that there is going to be a stealth gap in the world when everybody will be playing catch up with the US. “It’s important to realize that the F-35 program is flying combat capable today and that our adversaries are trying to produce the same technology that we have but we are in front of them, for the time being,” US Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, director of the F-35 integration office, explained to Business Insider this year.” So while Russia and China have both rolled out a prototype of their fifth-generation fighter they have a long way to go until they’ve got 75,000 flying hours on that airframe and more than 100 airplanes in their inventory.”
Considering that limited initial production run models – there are about 10 J-20s and eight PAK FAs built – aren’t the definitive editions of the plane and many new problems are discovered during their use – as it happened with the F-35 – nothing truly new will hit the market any time soon. And by the time those far-off projects mature, we might already be hitting the sixth generation of planes.
Skipping a generation is a an option for some
Skipping a generation might be just the thing for the European industries are now jointly developing drone fighters. The nEUROn program is headed by Dassault Aviation and involves five other firms, including Saab, while Taranis is a project from BAE Systems. In a continent that is seeing constant defense funding cuts and is heavily invested in F-35, the manufacturers have no easy way to produce a stealth fighter of their own. So these companies might be the ones to make the first leap into the unmanned future of aerial combat. In the meantime, Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen are supposed to be enough, especially considering the almost non-existent possibility of them running into opposition with 5th or 4++ generation jets (and air defense systems) any time soon.
“Even in the USAF, 4th Gen aircraft will be in service for decades to come. It is likely that 4th Gen will be the forces multipliers – providing the numbers – for most air forces in the future, with 5th Gen providing the niche capabilities in smaller numbers,” said Gareth Jennings. The manufacturers of 4++ aircraft also dispute the necessity of stealth for a 5th generation aircraft – if not the term itself. In 2010, an article in Eurofighter Weekly argued, that Eurofighter Typhoon met more 5th gen requirements than F-35. Stealth isn’t necessary, as speed, maneuverability, avionics and armaments, they argue, are enough.
And there might be truth in that – stealth shaping and coatings can be overcome. Phil Mills, director of F-X project at Boeing, had said that by combining IRST (infra-red search and track) and AESA radars, an F/A-18 Super Hornet can take down stealth planes, and is no less survivable because of its electronic warfare features. Stealth can also be beaten by advances in radar technology, especially as the proliferation of stealth platforms peak interest in research of low frequency radars for military applications. Low-frequency radars, not commonly used in AA systems and not that precise, could detect stealth planes simply by their size their size. That is where the other systems of the plane – and speed – come into play.
PAK FA/FGFA – a possible exports darling
So it is apparent that dealing with anti-air power without stealth is something that many countries will have to face in the foreseeable future. However, if they want to get into the 5th generation business, PAK-FA or the FGFA is probably going to be their best bet. In December 2016, Russian Aerospace Forces Commander Viktor Bondarev told Sputnik News that “All deadlines remain unchanged, the PAK FA tests are proceeding in leaps and bounds, the eighth prototype has already been delivered.” Of all of the 5th gen programs, this one is the nearest to production. If PAK FA can provide stealth, it will have an upper hand over the never-ending Flanker derivatives filling the market.
It also has at least the potential of being a platform that will enjoy long years of support, improvements and upgrades – just like the Flanker, but now with stealth. If the Russian fortunes turn in this precarious situation, the fruition of FGFA project could see India produce a major export jet that it could sell to anyone outside of Pakistan and China – and much cheaper than F-35. If either Russia or India can produce a stealth multirole jet that sells for half the price of F-35 (which USAF is planning to relegate to ground support role), they might have a market sensation on their hands.
In the end, the competition is going to be viscous. European 4++ canard-equipped and cheaper fighters can prove irresistible to countries that don’t worry too much about stealth. The market will also see the influx of these indigenous projects appearing – especially PAK FA/FGFA and FC-31 – as well as 4th generation fighters with low observability improvements at least for the forward aspect. And as anti-air defense industry rushes in cope with the influx of stealth, maybe Europe will eventually come out on top. After all, nobody cares about dead drones.