The last time American soldiers or Marines came under attack from enemy military aircraft was during the Korean War.
That did not happen by accident.
U.S. airpower strategy is based on having air dominance in any conflict. Air dominance means marrying the best pilots in the world with the best aircraft, and tying them together with the best tactics.
The current plan to field variants of a fifth-generation aircraft is one arm of that strategy.
Just the idea of a fifth-generation aircraft is a relatively new concept. It really only cropped up when the U.S. Air Force called for what became the F-22 Raptor. As the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps develop the Joint Strike Fighter – the F-35 Lightning 2 – there is more discussion of fifth-generation capabilities.
The idea of generations of aircraft “really came around with the F-22,” said Lt. Col. Brian Stahl, an airpower strategist with the Air Force. “As we looked at past aircraft, the main thing we were looking at were generational changes and improvement in capabilities. So as you looked at the first jet aircraft like the P-80 and into the F-86s move into the F-4s with air-to-air missiles and into the fourth generation aircraft you have better avionics, increased maneuverability, specialized mission sets. As you move into the F-22 it is a linear progression of all these things.”
But what are the previous generations of jet aircraft that have maintained aerial dominance since Korea?
The first generation of jet aircraft began in World War II. The German Messerschmitt 262 was the first jet aircraft that saw widespread combat in the war. American and British designers were concurrently working on jets, but none saw combat.
The P-80 Shooting Star was the most successful American jet. It was a trailblazer for the U.S. Army Air Forces. The straight-wing aircraft first flew in 1943, and was built by the Lockheed Skunk Works in 143 days. The aircraft first flew with a British engine. It did not see combat during World War II, but was a workhorse in the early days of the Korean War. The Air Force and the Navy flew what became known as F-80 aircraft into the 1970s. The T-33 training aircraft was a variant of the F-80 and served in that role into the 1980s.
The Bell P-59 Airacomet and Republic F-84 Thunderjet are also considered first-generation aircraft.
In Korea, the F-80 was clearly outclassed by the MiG-15. This swept-wing aircraft produced by the Soviet Union flew at least 100 mph faster than the F-80s.
Enter the North American F-86 Sabre. This swept-wing fighter bridged the gap between first-generation fighters and the second generation.
The F-86 more than held its own against the MiG-15. The aircraft cruised at more than 600 mph. In a dive, it could break the sound barrier. The F-86 gave United Nations forces in Korea air superiority – not air dominance – over the battlefield. North Korea launched a night air attack against U.S. forces on April 15, 1951, killing two soldiers. They were the last American ground casualties from an aerial attack.
Designers of second-generation aircraft took lessons learned in Korea and incorporated them into the aircraft of the so-called Century series of aircraft. This generation roughly runs from the mid-1950s to 1965.
Technological advances made this era a hothouse of aviation growth. Designers built aircraft with swept wings, delta wings and area-ruled fuselages. Engine breakthroughs enabled second-generation fighters to sustain supersonic speeds in level flight.
Advances in radar, missile technology and changes in tactics defined this generation of aircraft. The thinking at the time was that dogfighting was a thing of the past. Designers built aircraft that would climb quickly, fly fast and, using only missiles, shoot down intercontinental bombers.
The first aircraft of the Century series was the F-100 Super Sabre. The jet, also built by North American, was an outgrowth of the F-86. It was capable of sustained supersonic flight. Introduced in 1954, the F-100 started as an air-superiority fighter and segued into a close-air support platform in Vietnam. Other aircraft of the Century series are the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the Republic F-105 Thunderchief and the Convair F-106 Delta Dart.
The McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom 2 is the finest U.S. example of the third generation of fighters. Developed for the Navy and Marine Corps, the aircraft was also adopted by the Air Force in 1963. The Phantom is a two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor fighter/fighter-bomber. The many-hyphenated designation means the aircraft was one of the most capable in the inventory. It is still serving in air forces around the world.
Fourth-generation aircraft are the workhorses of American air power today. The F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon are the Air Force fourth-gen aircraft. The Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet is a fourth-generation aircraft. The now retired F-14 Tomcat is also considered a fourth-gen aircraft.
All these jets were designed in the mid to late 1970s and took the lessons learned from the Vietnam War. The emphasis was again on maneuverability. Dogfighting, stealth and radar avoidance came to the fore. The aircraft have been continually updates with new targeting pods, new radars, new materials. The classic example of this is the F/A-18 Super Hornet that while based on a 1970s airframe, is one of the most capable aircraft in the world.
Currently, the United States has the only fifth-generation fighters. Russia and China are working to catch up. The Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor is operational and capable of worldwide deployment. Lockheed-Martin also designed the F-35 Lightning 2 and that will be used by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nations.
The aircraft are the most advanced in the world and their capabilities are being kept purposely vague. They incorporate the latest in stealth technology, the latest avionics, communications, sensors and weaponry. These are all fused together giving pilots improved situational awareness, while reducing the workload.
Stahl says the biggest change from fourth-gen to fifth-gen is stealth. Fifth-generation fighters use the latest stealth technology.
Another difference is the way information is gathered, processed and used. Stahl flew F-16s and F-22. In the fourth-gen aircraft, the pilot is a system operator, he said. “An F-16 or F-15 pilot is constantly working the radar or working the targeting pod; all of these different sensors that require input from the pilot,” he said.
“In the F-22, all that is integrated and you have a synthesis of the data,” he continued. “Where the pilot was the operator before, now the jet is doing the integration and operation of the sensors. The pilot can now spend less time operating the systems, and more time actually processing the data.”
In other words, the pilot becomes more a tactician, instead of just trying to ensure the right information out of the systems on board.
Each generation of aircraft costs more. The F-80 cost about $110,000 a copy. The F-86 ran about $220,000. An F-100 Super Sabre ran about $700,000, while the F-4C Phantom was about $2.5 million. An F-15 Eagle ran about $30 million a copy. The F-22 Raptor costs about $133 million, with the F-35A coming in around the same range.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welch said that he doesn’t ever want a fair fight. In a fight between fourth-generation fighters and fifth generation aircraft, he noted, the fourth-generation fighters would be shot down before their pilots even knew the fifth-gen fighters were in the air.
This is at the heart of the need for fifth-generation capabilities, he says.