Fifth-Generation Fighters Will Determine Air Dominance in Future Conflicts

By Dan Parsons

In August 2013, South Korea chose Boeing’s F-15SE as its next-generation fighter aircraft over Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Months later, the South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration reversed course in favor of buying fewer of the more capable F-35.

John Pike, think tank director, said the episode is the best endorsement of the joint strike fighter’s fifth-generation technologies, regardless of its problematic development and relatively high cost.

“I think the sovereign answer on the F-35 is South Korea,” Pike told National Defense. “They had a flyoff between the F-35 and the F-15 and they chose the F-15. That was a really interesting competition because it was apples to apples. The F-35 was four times more expensive. Initially the price difference drove them to choose the cheaper aircraft. Then a little down the road, they thought better of it and reversed the decision, cost be damned.”

South Korea has a vested interest in keeping up with the latest in fighter technology and capabilities. It sits in the middle of a region that is increasingly dominated by an expansionist China, which is developing its own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20. That aircraft, which mimics the F-35 in its stealth and sensor technologies, is scheduled to become combat ready at the same time as its U.S.-developed counterpart.

South Korea’s decision to purchase the more expensive F-35 was likely a long-game wager that it would have to one day counter the Chinese air force, Pike said.

“In another five years, there will be two types of aircraft in Asia: stealth fighters, meaning fifth-generation fighters, and targets,” he said. “There’s no reason to buy a bunch of F-15s when all you’re doing is providing Red China with target practice.”

Fifth-generation fighters bring more to the table than simply stealth. In future conflicts, they will charge ahead and determine which force will achieve air dominance, Pike said. Older fighters, which will still be in U.S. and other nations’ fleets for decades, will then come in and perform “clean-up” missions against enemy positions and air-defense installations, he added. They also will carry sophisticated electronic-attack weaponry designed to counter enemy radar and air defenses in the sort of non-permissive environments that U.S. aircraft have not had to contend in the wars of the past decade.

The F-35 and F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005, incorporate an electronics suite and information-gathering technologies that are far in advance of current capabilities.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, speaking at the delivery of Australia’s first two F-35s, praised the joint strike fighter’s computing power.

The F-35 encompasses “millions of lines of code, an incredibly integrated design that brings together stealth, a number of characteristics, very advanced sensors, advanced radars, advanced [infrared] sensors, incredibly capable electronic warfare capability, integration of weapons and integration across the force of multiple aircraft and multiple sensors to work together as a team,” he said.

“You’re talking about something that no one has ever done before, which will put us all a decade or more ahead of anybody else out there. And [it will] keep us ahead for some time to come as we continue to upgrade the F-35,” he added.

Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of U.S. Air Combat Command, said viewing stealth as the defining characteristic of fifth-generation aircraft is shortsighted. 

“When you talk about fifth-generation … stealth is one of the characteristics of it,” Hostage said in July at an Air Force Association meeting in Arlington, Virginia. “I think the most amazing difference between fourth- and fifth-gen is the fusion capability, the ability to take sensors and make the pilot no longer the fusion device. … For me that is the defining characteristic of fifth-generation.”

 The Raptor is the only combat-ready fifth-generation fighter in the world. Its thrust-vectoring engines, sensor fusion technology and stealth are what define it as a generational leap from previous fighter designs.

“What the Raptor has that I think is truly unique is the combination of altitude, speed and stealth. The synergy of those three allow us to do things with that platform that no other airplane on the planet could do,” Hostage added.

It will soon be joined on the world stage by the F-35, the J-20 and the Russian Sukhoi T-50.

The F-35, while a potent offensive weapon, is also a tool for sensor fusion that links its pilot to a wealth of information. The aircraft can also “talk to” nearly every other platform on the battlefield, Hostage said. Allied fighters are designed with identical, completely interoperable sensing capabilities that will produce unprecedented situational and battlespace awareness, he said.

“The F-35 … has the ability to work cooperatively with other airplanes that, again, nobody else can do. That’s the power of that fleet,” Hostage said. “That’s why I’m so adamant about the fleet that I’ve got to build the F-35.”

One of the defining characteristics of the F-35 is its advanced pilot helmet that allows the pilot to virtually see through the fuselage of the plane by stitching together images from cameras mounted all over its exterior. Full-motion video of the environment and other information is displayed in real time on the pilot’s visor, allowing a view out of the cockpit without changing the position of the aircraft, as is now necessary. The aircraft also shares the information it gathers with an information network that links pilots of other aircraft, ships, ground forces and other elements of the joint force and U.S. allies.

“A U.K. F-35 doesn’t care” whose flag another allied aircraft is flying under, Hostage said. “The ability to have partners who have equipment that is absolutely interoperable is key. … It’s not just what American air power can produce, it’s what allied air power can produce because of the synergistic effects of the platform.”

The F-35 will eventually replace the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Strike Eagle. The single-engine F-16 is the most prolific fighter aircraft in the world. The twin-engine F-15 has been in continuous service with the Air Force since the 1970s. Both aircraft are expected to remain in service until the 2020s at the earliest.

However, the Air Force recently canceled a plan to install active electronically scanned array radars and advanced avionics suites on its F-16 fleet in favor of focusing on the F-35 as the backbone of its future fighter fleet.

Periodic upgrades have brought both aircraft to a generation 4.5 designation, which means that retrofitted technologies have allowed significant capability upgrades within an existing airframe. Those upgrades have also allowed the U.S. military to incrementally improve its aircraft without having to embark on traditionally costly programs to develop new platforms from the ground up. An example is the E/A-18G Growler, the Navy’s replacement for the EA-8 Prowler electronic attack aircraft.

Growlers perform the same core airborne electronic attack mission of the Prowler within a Super Hornet airframe.

The Navy’s carrier-based F-35C, which is the most expensive JSF version and will be combat ready in 2017, will replace the current fleet of F-18 Hornets, but is not intended to replace the E/A-18G Growler or to assume its electronic attack mission, Cmdr. Jeannie Groenveld, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told National Defense in an email.

The primary mission of the Growler is the suppression of hostile radar systems and communications that might be employed against friendly forces, she said.

This mission can be accomplished via electronic attack and/or weapons delivery; however, jamming is the primary function. Support for joint forces will be provided by both carrier-based and expeditionary squadrons, she said.

“It will be a critical enabler in every air wing, carrier strike group, and joint force, providing electromagnetic spectrum dominance in an electronic attack rich environment,” Groenveld said.

Though designed to have an extremely low radar signature, the F-35 and F-22 are not invisible, Pike said. That is where existing aircraft like the Growler, which has powerful radar-jamming capabilities, will come into play.

“A little bitty radar in the nose of a fighter might not be able to see an F-35, but a big radar in a bigger airplane or on the ground might be able to see it,” he said. “If you are the loudest thing in the sky because you are an active jammer, it doesn’t make much sense to put that on a stealth aircraft. So the Growler remains useful as a standoff jammer against standoff enemy radar.”

Though the arms race with peer nations like China and Russia to develop a fifth-generation aircraft is in full swing, there is no consensus on exactly what the aircraft will do in combat or how they eventually will be deployed, Pike said.

“Nobody knows how it is going to be used because it is going to be used for a very long time and things will change,” he said. “The challenge with all of these platforms now is to develop something that has capabilities that are going to be relevant in the face of changing requirements. We don’t know who we’re going to be fighting or where we’re going to be fighting or how. But we’re investing in an aircraft that is going to be around until most of the people who are now working on it are long dead.”

Even the highly sophisticated F-22 and F-35 have limitations on the number of munitions they can carry in their internal weapon bays. Missiles on those aircraft are stowed inside to maintain the smooth airframe profile that renders them less visible to enemy radar. The F-22 can carry only eight missiles, a glaring shortcoming for the air-dominance fighter, Hostage said.

“One of my great frustrations with our weapon systems today is our limited magazine,” he said. “I’ve got a platform now in the Raptor that can go into heinous territory, at great risk, but can only whack eight bad guys in the process.”

“I’d like to go in there and whack a whole bunch of them,” he added.

It may seem premature to begin thinking about a future generation of aircraft when the Air Force’s F-35A will not reach initial operating capability until 2016. The F-22 entered service in 2005, but has yet to see combat in the wars and contingencies in which the U.S. military has participated since then.

Hostage was adamant that the time to begin thinking about future capabilities is now, “given that tortuous acquisition process.”

“We’re already behind the timeline to get something on the ramp in order to properly phase out an aging fleet,” he said.

All previous generations of fighters have been single-seater jets. The sixth-generation follow-on to the F-35 might break that mold. It will not necessarily have a pilot, and it might not be a fighter jet as that role has been defined in previous generations, Hostage said. He encouraged a development process that begins with the fundamental technologies that will provide leap-ahead combat capabilities and designing a platform around its future role.

“Don’t start into this process thinking … in terms of a platform,” Hostage said. “Be thinking in terms of what is the capability that future technology will bring to us that will allow us to provide air dominance in the future. If that’s a single button on a keyboard that makes all the adversaries fall to the ground, I’m OK with that.”

- Additional reporting by Chelsea Todaro

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy, Procurement

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