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Why 'fifth gen' helps me sleep at night

By Baz Bardoe - posted Tuesday, 24 December 2013

In his book 'Australian security in the Asian century', Dr Sanu Kainikara outlines what can only be termed a 'challenging' security environment for this nation in coming decades. A regional arms race, growing demand for resources, and the pressures of exploding population levels will all contribute. It is therefore no wonder that the Australian Defence Force is undertaking comprehensive upgrades, designed to retain a strong tactical advantage. A big part of this is the adoption of 'fifth generation' capability by the Air Force.

The enormity of the technological shift embodied by the F35 'Lightning 2' is truly science fictional, and no one is in any doubt that these aircraft are game changing to an extent that is without precedent. This kind of technology does not come cheaply, so why is Australia spending some serious dollars on a new generation of military aircraft that seems to have sprung straight out of 'Star Trek'?

In order to be able to invade Australia a potential aggressor needs to be able to land significant occupying forces here. And they can't do that if they don't own the skies. The F35 is intended to be the ultimate deterrent.


The exact definition of 'fifth generation' is debateable. The term originates in the 1990's when attempts were made to categorise the improvements in capability of successive jet fighter types. Changes to the actual design of the airframe, avionics and weapons systems all play a part in helping to define what might be considered a generational advance. In very rough terms a generational shift is said to have occurred when new technological innovations can no longer be incorporated into an existing platform, either via upgrades, or retrospective fitouts.

In the 1940's, during the height of World War Two, the fledgling Australian aviation industry, designed and built the 'Boomerang' fighter. Commencing design from scratch at the end of 1941, it was in action by 1943. Although not a great fighter aircraft, it well illustrates how quickly new fighters could be developed at the end of the propeller dominated age, and provides some context for Australia's current ambitious leap into the future, where a generational leap can take decades from inception to operational deployment.

The first jet powered fighter to be used operationally was the Luftwaffe's twin engine Me262, which saw service from 1944. From the Australian perspective the jet fighter age did not arrive until well after the war, with the introduction of the Gloster Meteor, and then the F86 Sabre. The latter was developed by the Americans and featured a swept wing configuration, and a single engine. It was subsonic, but represented a massive capability increment, compared to the propeller driven aircraft it superseded

The next generational shift occurred from the mid 1950's to early 1960's with the introduction of air to air radar, infrared and semi active guided missiles, radar warning receivers, and improvements in engine and aerodynamic design, that allowed supersonic speeds at level flight. This generation was typified by aircraft such as the F-104, F-5, MiG-19 and MiG-21, but Australia missed out on this generational shift.

From the early 1960's to around 1970 a third generation of fighter aircraft arrived with huge changes in manoeuvrability, and significant enhancements to the avionic suites and weapon systems. They were true 'multi role' fighters and ushered in an age of combat beyond visual range. Advances in radar and semi-active guided radio frequency missiles meant a target no longer had to be acquired visually. From the Australian perspective the French built Mirage 3 gave us a fully fledged third generation capability.

The next generation from around 1970 to the 1980's saw greater advances in avionics, such as head up displays, and improvements in aerodynamic design. Another major attribute was a greater flexibility n roles switching from air to air, to ground attack as required. The MiG-29, Su-27,F-15, F-16, and F/A 18 embody this generation and Australia has had great service from the versatile F/A 18 'Hornet'. By the late 1980's and 1990's reduction in Defence budgets in many major military powers meant that creating an entirely new generation was not viable, and hence the term 'four and a half' generation fighter which applies to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The addition of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar was considered enough of a capability enhancement to warrant a '4.5' designation. A variety of measures such as adding 'stealth' radar absorbing materials, thrust vector controlled engines, greater weapons capacity and so forth have extended the life of many iconic fourth generation aircraft such as the ubiquitous F16 Falcon.


The age of the true fifth generation fighter arrived with the introduction of the F22 Raptor in 2005. This will soon be joined by the F35 'Lightning 2', the Sukhoi PAK FA as well as the Chinese Chengdu J-20, which is believed to have at least some fifth generation attributes. Fifth generation fighters represent an almost science fictional leap in capability, including airframes designed to embody 'stealth' attributes, that make it almost impossible for them to be detected even by other fifth generation fighters. They provide an enormous leap in the pilot's situational awareness via multi spectral sensors located across all aspects of the airframe, which allow the pilot to 'look' through any part of the airframe without having to maneuver. The aircraft can deploy a range of weapons without an opponent even being aware of the threat, and they are 'born' networked which allows them to receive, share and store information relating to all aspects of their operational environment.

The F35 is a phenomenally complex piece of military hardware, and it is its software that is the key both to its expected ascendancy now, and its ability to quickly evolve to new threats in the future. The F35 has more software than any other combat aircraft, with seven million lines of code on the aircraft itself , and another seven million in its supporting ground systems. In defining a potential threat it uses about a hundred times more parameters than a conventional fourth generation fighter. In short it is expected to deliver greater survivability and lethality, by providing the pilot with a massive advantage in decision making, and attributes of design, avionics and weapons that will mean previous generations simply have no chance.

The F35's origins belong with the Joint Strike Fighter program, principally funded by the US, with help from the UK and other allies it was envisaged as a replacement for a bewildering range of aircraft in a wide range of roles. The JSF program emerged from a dovetailing of two other programs – the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF), and the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) project. The former was based upon a requirement to replace the F16 with a Short Takeoff and Landing (STOVL) aircraft, and had the involvement of both the Marine Corps and US Air Force. JAST got its start in 1993 and led to the development of the F22 Raptor, and the FA/18 Super Hornet programs. The aim of JAST was to develop weapons, sensor technology and airframes for a new generation family of aircraft that would mainly replace F16s and Harriers in a variety of US and UK services. With a program office established in 1994, the funding of the F35's development into an operational multi role combat aircraft has been financed by the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark .The aircraft is due to commence delivery to the Australian Air Force in 2014, with a projected operational target of 2018. The US intends to buy 2,443, which along with the other partners, will make it one of the most common combat aircraft in the skies.

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About the Author

Baz Bardoe is a military aviation public affairs specialist. He is currently completing post graduate research in emerging trends in communications, social organisation and "information warfare". He is a widely published aviation, defence and technology writer. Any views expressed are his own.

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