Fifth-generation jet fighter

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USAF F-22 Raptor launching an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile

A fifth-generation jet fighter is a jet fighter classification used around the world that encompasses the fighter technologies developed during the first part of the 21st century. As of 2019 these are the most advanced aircraft. The exact characteristics of fifth-generation jet fighters are controversial and vague, with Lockheed Martin defining them as having all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar (LPIR), high-performance airframes, advanced avionics features, and highly integrated computer systems capable of networking with other elements within the battlespace for situation awareness.[1]

As of March 2018, the only combat-ready fifth-generation fighters are the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, which entered service with the United States Air Force in 2005; the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which entered service in 2015;[2][3] and the Chengdu J-20, which entered service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in September 2017.[4] The Shenyang J-31 had flight testing of the 3.0 revised version in 2017. The Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin, TAI TFX, and HAL AMCA are in the early stages of development. The Sukhoi Su-57 is slated for delivery to the Russian Air Force in 2019.


United States[edit]

Previous-generation stealth aircraft such as the B-2 Spirit and F-117 Nighthawk were designed to be bombers or ground attack aircraft, lacking the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, low probability of intercept (LPI) data networks, aerial performance, and air-to-air weapons necessary to engage other aircraft.[5] In the early 1970s, various American design projects identified stealth, speed, and maneuverability as key characteristics of a next-generation air-to-air combat aircraft. This led to the Request for Information for the Advanced Tactical Fighter project in May 1981, which resulted in the F-22.[6]

The USMC is leveraging the USAF's experience with "fifth-generation air warfare" in the F-22, as they develop their own tactics for the F-35.[7]

According to Lockheed Martin in 2004, the only fifth-generation jet fighter then in operational service was their own F-22 Raptor.[2][8] Lockheed Martin uses "fifth generation fighter" to describe the F-22 and F-35 fighters, with the definition including "advanced stealth", "extreme performance", "information fusion" and "advanced sustainment".[2] For unknown reasons, their definition no longer includes supercruise capability, which has typically been associated with the more advanced modern fighters, but which coincidentally, the F-35 lacks.[9] Lockheed Martin attempted to trademark the term "5th generation fighters" in association with jet aircraft and structural parts thereof,[10] and has a trademark for a logo with the term.[11]


The Shenyang J-31 aircraft at the 2014 Zhuhai Airshow

By the late 1990s, several Chinese fifth-generation fighter programs, grouped under the program codename J-XX or XXJ, were identified by western intelligence sources. PLAAF officials have confirmed the existence of such a program, which they estimate will enter service between 2017–2019.[12][13] Nevertheless, Robert Gates has claimed that the United States may possess as much as 20 times more "advanced stealth fighters" than China by 2020.[14] By late 2010, two prototypes of the Chengdu J-20 had been constructed and were undergoing high-speed taxi trials.[15] The J-20 made its first flight on 11 January 2011.[16] On 26 December 2015, a new J-20 with serial number 2101 was seen leaving its Chengdu Aviation Corporation factory. It is believed to be the first of the low rate initial production (LRIP) aircraft.[17] 2101 conducted its maiden flight on 18 January 2016.[18]

The J-20 officially entered service in September 2017[19] and the PLAAF began inducting J-20s into combat units in February 2018.[20]

Another stealth fighter design from SAC started to circulate on the internet in September 2011.[21] In June 2012, photos about a possible prototype of F-60 being transferred on highway began to emerge on the internet.[22] This aircraft was named Shenyang J-31 later, and made its maiden flight on 31 October 2012.[23]


A Sukhoi Su-57 prototype

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union outlined the need for a next-generation aircraft to replace its fourth-generation jet fighters, the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27, in front line service. To meet the characteristics for the next-generation aircraft, work was underway on two aircraft projects: the twin-engined delta canard Sukhoi Su-47 with forward-swept wings and the Mikoyan Project 1.44. However, due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and lack of funds, both remained only as technology demonstrators.

After 2000, the Russian Ministry of Defence initiated a new fighter competition known as "PAK FA" to develop a next-generation fighter for the Russian Air Force, with Sukhoi and Mikoyan as the main competitors. Sukhoi came up with its heavier, two-engine T-50 (now Su-57) proposal, while Mikoyan put emphasis on the light, single-engine Mikoyan LMFS proposal, based on the cancelled MiG-1.44 project.[24] In 2002, Sukhoi was selected to lead the development of Russia's next-generation fighter based on the T-50 design. Mikoyan decided to continue its development of the multirole Mikoyan LMFS as a smaller and cheaper alternative to the Su-57.[25][26]

As Russia's first fifth-generation aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-57 is intended to replace the aging MiG-29s and Su-27s in Russian inventory.[27][28] The first Su-57 prototype performed its maiden flight on 29 January 2010[29][30] and the first production Su-57 aircraft is slated for delivery to the Russian Air Force in 2019.[31][32] When introduced into service, its main rivals will be the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.


HAL AMCA, India's fifth generation stealth fighter

India is independently developing a twin-engine fifth-generation supermaneuverable stealth multirole fighter, called the HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). It is being developed and designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency and will be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. DRDO defines AMCA as a "fifth-generation-plus platform".[33] Unofficial design work on the AMCA began in 2008, while official work started in 2011 and finished in 2014.[33][34][35] The first flight is scheduled to occur in 2023–2024.[36] It is a multirole combat aircraft designed for the air superiority, ground attack, bombing, intercepting, strike and other types of roles. It combines supercruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, supermaneuverability, and advanced avionics to overcome and suppress previous generation fighter aircraft along with many ground and maritime defences.

Another project of India is the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which is a fifth-generation jet fighter being developed together by India and Russia. It is a derivative project of the Sukhoi Su-57 being developed for the Russian Air Force. FGFA was the earlier designation for the Indian version, while the combined project is now called the Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF).[37] The completed FGFA will include a total of 43 improvements over the Su-57, including stealth, supercruise, advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics.[38][39] however the project is already four years delayed due to multiple issues.[40][41] On 9 March 2015, media outlets reported that the both India and Russia agreed to reduce the aircraft delivery time from 92 months to 36 months with the signing of the final agreement. India is also ready to forego a 50:50 work share to prevent further delays from absorption of a new technology; both countries agreed to manufacture the first batch of aircraft in Russia and for subsequent batches to be manufactured by HAL.[42][43][44] On 25 January 2016, it was reported that Russia and India have agreed to develop FGFA and lower investment cost to $4 billion for each nation. They will invest $1 billion in the first year and another $500 million per year for the following six years.[45]

As of 2016, AMCA is under development and FGFA was under negotiation.[46]

In early 2018, India pulled out of the FGFA project, which it believed did not meet its requirements for stealth, combat avionics, radars and sensors by that time.[47] This news lead some observers to question the future of the whole Su-57 project.[48]


Japan is developing a prototype of a stealth jet fighter called the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin, previously referred to as the ATD-X. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Japan, seeking to replace its aging fleet of fighter aircraft, began making overtures to the United States on the topic of purchasing F-22 fighters for their own forces.[49] However the U.S. Congress had banned the exporting of the aircraft in order to safeguard secrets of the aircraft's technology such as its extensive use of stealth; this rejection necessitated Japan's development of its own modern fighter, to be equipped with stealth features and other advanced systems.[50]

A mock-up of the X-2 Shinshin was constructed and used to study the radar cross section in France in 2009. The first prototype rolled out in July 2014 and the aircraft made its first flight on 22 April 2016. By July 2018, Japan had gleaned sufficient information, and decided that it would need to bring on international partners to complete this project. Several companies have responded.[51]


In 2011 Türk Havacılık ve Uzay Sanayii AŞ (Turkish Aerospace Industries or TAI) initiated a $20 million concept design phase for a fifth-generation air-to-air fighter, TAI TFX. During a State visit of the President of Turkey to Sweden on 13 March 2013, TAI signed an agreement with Sweden's Saab AB to provide design support services to Turkey for the TAI TFX program.[52][53][54][55] TAI has stated that the program will cost $120 billion (with engine development).[56] Former Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated that Turkey has allocated the funds for development of the fuselage (less engine) and that it intends to have the TAI TFX fully operational prior to 2025.

On 8 January 2015, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that the TFX program will be an entirely indigenous platform with no international support shelving any cooperation with Korea, Sweden, Brazil or Indonesia. On 13 March 2015 the Turkish Undersecretariat for Defence Industries (SSM) officially issued a Request for Information from Turkish companies which had the capacity "to perform the indigenous design, development and production activities of the first Turkish Fighter Aircraft to meet Turkish Armed Forces’ next generation fighter requirements", signalling the official start of the program.


On 7 July 2017 the Pakistan Air Force announced the development of a fifth-generation fighter, a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (MALE UAV), and munitions under the banner of Project Azm (resolve or determination).[57][58][59][60][61]

According to Asia Times, China is rumored to be considering the sharing of Chengdu J-20 technology with allies such as Pakistan,[62] however much like the CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder, Pakistan's fifth generation fighter is likely to be a light and low-cost platform that is cheaper to run and maintain.[63]

Common design elements[edit]

Giovanni de Briganti has defined the defining elements of a fifth-generation fighter to be:[64]

In order to minimize their radar cross-section (RCS), all fifth-generation fighters use chines instead of standard leading edge extensions and lack canards, though the Sukhoi T-50 has engine intake extensions that seem to function somewhat like canards and the Chengdu J-20 designers have chosen the agility enhancements of canards in spite of their poor stealth characteristics.[65] They all have twin canted vertical tails (similar to a V-tail) also to minimize side RCS. Most fifth-generation fighters with supermaneuverability achieve it through thrust vectoring.

They all have internal weapon bays in order to avoid high RCS weapon pylons, but they all have external hardpoints on their wings for use on non-stealthy missions, such as the external fuel tanks the F-22 carries when deploying to a new theater.

All fifth-generation fighters have a high percentage of composite materials, in order to reduce RCS and weight.

Software defined aircraft[edit]

All revealed fifth-generation fighters use commercial off-the-shelf main processors to directly control all sensors to form a consolidated view of the battlespace with both onboard and networked sensors, while previous-generation jet fighters used federated systems where each sensor or pod would present its own readings for the pilot to combine in their own mind a view of the battlespace.[66][67][68] The F-22A was physically delivered without synthetic aperture radar (SAR) or situation awareness infra-red search and track. It will gain SAR later through software upgrades.[69] However any flaw in these huge software systems can knock out supposedly unrelated aircraft systems and the complexity of a software defined aircraft can lead to a software crisis with additional costs and delays.[70][71] By the end of 2013 the biggest concern with the F-35 program was software, especially the software required to do data fusion across the many sensors.[72]

Sukhoi calls their expert system for sensor fusion the artificial intelligence of the Su-57.[73] Flight tests of their integrated modular avionics started in 2017 on a fiber optic networked multicore processor system.[74]

An automatic software response to an overheat condition apparently has contributed to at least one fatal crash of an F-22.[75]

The F-35 uses Software-defined radio systems, where common middleware controls Field-programmable gate arrays.[69] Col. Arthur Tomassetti has said that the F-35 is a "software intensive airplane and software is easy to upgrade, as opposed to hardware."[76]

In order to ease the addition of new software features, the F-35 has adopted a kernel and app separation of security responsibilities.[77]

Steve O'Bryan of Lockheed Martin has said that the F-35 may gain the ability to operate UAVs through a future software upgrade.[78] The USN is already planning to place its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system under the control of a manned aircraft, to act as a flying missile magazine.[79]

Situational awareness[edit]

The combination of stealthy airframes, stealthy sensors, and stealthy communications is designed to allow fifth-generation fighters to engage other aircraft before those targets are aware of their presence.[80] Lt. Col. Gene McFalls of the USAF has said that sensor fusion will feed into inventory databases to precisely identify aircraft at a distance.[81]

Sensor fusion and automatic target tracking are projected to give the fifth-generation jet fighter pilot a view of the battlespace superior to that of legacy AWACS aircraft that may be forced back from the front lines by increasing threats. Therefore, tactical control could be shifted forwards to the pilots in the fighters.[82] Michael Wynne, former Secretary of the United States Air Force, has suggested elimination of the Boeing E-3 Sentry and Boeing E-8 Joint STARS in favor of more F-35s, simply because so much effort is being made by the Russians and Chinese to target these platforms that are built to commercial airliner standards.[83]

However, the more powerful sensors, such as AESA radar which is able to operate in multiple modes at the same time, may present too much information for the single pilot in the F-22, F-35 and Su-57 to adequately use. The Sukhoi/HAL FGFA offered a return to the two-seat configuration common in fourth generation strike fighters, but this was rejected over cost concerns.[84]

There is ongoing research to apply track-before-detect across sensor fusion in the core CPU to allow fifth-generation fighters to engage targets that no single sensor has by itself detected.[85] Probability theory is used to determine "what data to believe, when to believe and how much to believe".[86]

These sensors produce too much data for the onboard computers to fully process so sensor fusion is achieved by comparing what is observed against preloaded threat libraries that contain known enemy capabilities for a given region.[87] Items that do not match known threats are not even displayed.[88]

Limits of stealth[edit]

Even committed fifth-generation fighter users such as the Israelis concede that advances in sensors and computing will overcome a pure stealth configuration within a decade. This is why the Israelis insisted that the F-35 have defined interfaces so that the electronic warfare systems could be constantly improved to match the threat.[89] All known fifth-generation designs have extensive electronic warfare systems, partly in response to an incident where the limited EW systems on an F-117 may have led to its loss in combat.[90] Stealth is now seen as "part of the overall electronic warfare issue", in that a stealthy platform is easier to hide with the assistance of jamming.[91]

Chinese state media has claimed that their UHF JY-26 radar has tracked an F-22 on deployment to South Korea.[92]

Combat cloud[edit]

Gilmary M. Hostage III has suggested that fifth-generation jet fighters will operate together in a "combat cloud" along with future unmanned combat aircraft,[93] and Michael Manazir has suggested that this might come as quickly as loading a UCLASS with AMRAAMs to be launched at the command of an F-35.[94]

Critics and alternative definitions[edit]

The definition of the term fifth-generation fighter from Lockheed Martin has been criticized by companies whose products do not conform to these particular specifications, such as Boeing and Eurofighter, and by other commentators such as Bill Sweetman:[95] "it is misleading to portray the F-22 and F-35 as a linear evolution in fighter design. Rather, they are a closely related pair of outliers, relying on a higher level of stealth as a key element of survivability – as the Lockheed YF-12 and Mikoyan MIG-25, in the 1960s, relied on speed and altitude."[96]

The United States Navy and Boeing have placed the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in a "next generation" fighter category along with the F-22 and F-35,[97] as the Super Hornet has a "fifth-generation" AESA radar, modest radar cross-section (RCS) reductions and sensor fusion.[98][99] A senior USAF pilot has complained about fifth-generation claims for the Super Hornet: "The whole point to fifth generation is the synergy of stealth, fusion and complete situational awareness. The point about fifth-generation aircraft is that they can do their mission anywhere – even in sophisticated integrated air defense [IADS] environments. If you fly into heavy IADS with a great radar and sensor fusion, but no stealth, you will have complete situational awareness of the guy that kills you."[100] Michael “Ponch” Garcia of Raytheon has said that the addition of their AESA radars to the Super Hornet provides "90 percent of your fifth-generation capability at half the cost."[101] And a top Boeing official has called their newest 4.5 generation fighters "stealth killers".[102]

In response to the use of the "fifth generation" term, Eurofighter has made a fifth-generation checklist placing different weights on the various capabilities, and arguing that the application of the label to strike aircraft such as Lockheed-Martin's F-35 is ill-advised, and even inconsistent with the aircraft's specifications. Meanwhile, Eurofighter adds "net-enabled operations" as a noteworthy requirement and de-emphasizes full-scope low observability as only one factor in survivability.[103] In the same article Eurofighter GmbH appear to acknowledge the remarkable performance of Lockheed Martin's F-22 aircraft, while demonstrating that labels as simple as "fifth generation" may easily be devised to serve the interests of the writer.

Richard A. Bitzinger of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a former consultant for the American RAND Corporation think tank, suggests that Western Europe's "failure" to develop a fifth-generation jet fighter may reduce these former leaders in the market to also-ran status as the world's attention shifts to the competition between the United States and Asian powers.[104] Canadians Alex Wilner and Marco Wyss of the Center for Security Studies claim that Europe's failure to "keep up" with the F-35 may make the European jet fighter manufacturers close up shop.[105] However, Europe may return with a trans-national 'sixth-generation' UCAV, assuming that the political entanglements can be evaded.[106] The European Defence Agency has warned that the European $60 billion industry could collapse by 2020.[107]

The Russian Defense Ministry defines fifth-generation as including "stealth technology, supersonic cruising speed, highly-integrated avionics, electronics and fire-control systems".[108]

Fifth-generation fighters in service or with flying prototypes[edit]

General data[edit]

Aircraft Primary
Status Service
cost USD
Wing area
sq. m
Max takeoff
F-22  U.S. 1997 195 in service 2005 150 M 18.87 13.56 78.04 19,700 kg 29,410 kg 38,000 kg CTOL
F-35A  U.S. 2006 90 in service 2016[109] 94.3 M (LRIP lot 10)[110] 15.67 10.70 42.70 13,300 kg 22,470 kg 31,800 kg CTOL
F-35B  U.S. 2008 40 in service 2015[111] 122.4 M (LRIP lot 10)[110] 15.61 10.70 42.70 14,700 kg 27,300 kg STOVL
F-35C  U.S. 2010 20 in service 2018 121.2 M (LRIP lot 10)[110] 15.67 13.10 62.10 15,800 kg 31,800 kg CATOBAR
J-20  China 2011 >20[112][17] in service 2017 110 M(LRIP)[113] 20.36 13.47 73.00 19,390 kg 32,090 kg 36,288 kg CTOL
J-31  China 2012 3 in testing 2019 70 M 17.3 11.5 40.0 28,000 kg CTOL
Su-57  Russia 2010 10[114][115] in testing 2019 54 M 19.80 14.00 78.80 18,500 kg 29,270 kg 37,000 kg CTOL


Aircraft Primary
Max Speed
Cruise speed
Engines Total
dry thrust
Total thrust
with afterburner
Stealth RCS
F-22  U.S. 2,410 1,963 2,960 20,000 2 232 kN 312 kN 1.08 2D [116][117] 0.0001–0.4
F-35A  U.S. 1,930 1,362 2,220 18,288 1 125 kN 191 kN 0.87 none [117][118] 0.005–0.3
F-35B  U.S. 1,930 1,362 1,670 18,288 1 125 kN 191 kN 0.90 STOVL 0.005–0.3
F-35C  U.S. 1,930 1,362 2,520 18,288 1 125 kN 191 kN 0.75 none 0.005–0.3
J-20  China 2,100 5,000 20,000 2 174 kN 280 kN 0.94 3D [119]0.01–0.5
J-31  China 2,200 2 158 kN 190 kN
Su-57  Russia 2,440 1,700 3,500 20,000 2 186 kN 294 kN 1.02 3D [116][120] 0.3–0.5

Armament and avionics[edit]

Aircraft Primary
X-Band radar
X-Band radar
Radar detection
range 1 m² target
F-22  U.S. 8 4 Yes 240 km Missile warning
F-35A  U.S. 4 7 Yes 150 km Full (DAS)
F-35B  U.S. 4 7 Yes 150 km Full (DAS)
F-35C  U.S. 4 7 Yes 150 km Full (DAS)
J-20  China 8 4 Yes Unknown Unknown Unknown Full (DAS)
J-31  China 6 4 Yes Unknown Unknown Unknown Full (DAS)
Su-57  Russia 4 or 6 6 Yes Yes Yes Forward arc

Related development[edit]

See also[edit]


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