Is the F-35 really a fifth generation fighter?

5th Generation fighters.  Clockwise from upper left:  J-XX, F-22, F-35, PAK FA.

One of the buzzwords being used by F-35 proponents is that it is a "Fifth Generation jet fighter".  It is often implied that, as such, it is such a technological leap ahead of other available fighters that they might as well be Sopwith Camels.  Is it really the case?  Yes and no.  Technical superiority certainly gives an edge, but history has taught us that victory is far from assured.

First Generation
First generation:  The Messerschmitt Me262.
The last days of World War Two saw the biggest change to air combat since someone strapped a machine gun to a biplane and called it a fighter.  The Messersschmitt Me262 entered service as the first operational jet fighter.  Despite being the most advanced fighter over Europe, it's deployment had negligible impact on the outcome of the war.  Part of the problem was Adolf Hitler's insistence that the Me262 be used as a light bomber, rather than a more suitable role of air-superiority or bomber interceptor.  Allied pilots were also able to take advantage of the Me262's lack of agility at low speeds, and altered their tactics to attack the Me262s at their home bases, before they could get off the ground.

Korean War enemies:  MiG-15 (left) and F-86 (right).
The Korean War saw the beginning of true jet versus jet combat.  Dogfights were fought with cannons and ground attacks were carried out using unguided bombs and rockets.  The two arch rivals of the Korean air war, the F-86 and the MiG-15, were close to identical in terms of performance and firepower, yet the American F-86 shot down 10 MiG-15s for every F-86 lost.  This was due to the fact that most F-86 pilots were WWII veterans.  In a world of jet combat, pilot skill is still an overwhelming factor.

Second Generation

First of the "Century Series", the F-100 Super Saber.
As the Cold War continued to escalate, the governments pushed for air superiority.  Fighter aircraft no longer resembled WWII fighters without propellers.  Jet engines became increasingly powerful.  Advances were made in aerodynamics and radars.  Instead of machine guns, fighter jets were now being armed with early guided missiles and nuclear bombs.

Second generation fighter aircraft showed amazingly rapid progress.  The sound barrier was shattered by the use of afterburning engines.  High speeds, radars, and guided missiles introduced the concept of beyond visual range, or BVR combat.  One could shoot down an enemy without having ever seen it as anything but a blip on your radar screen.

Third Generation
The F-4 Phantom

Third generation fighters took the second generation's radical developments and made them commonplace.  Guided missiles, both infrared and radar guided were now the primary weapons.  Guns were no longer considered necessary, and in some cases, left off the designing board altogether.  Radars were so powerful and speeds were so fast, that close in dogfighting was thought to be delegated to the past.  That is, until, Vietnam.

During the Vietnam air war, U.S. forces learned all too well that the day of the dogfighter was far from over.  Radar guided Sparrow air-to-air missiles didn't work nearly as well as advertised.  Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) complicated things further.  Infrared guided missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder worked best fired at the enemy's hot engine nozzle.  Early F-4 Phantoms, unequipped with built-in cannons, were retrofitted with gun pods.  Later models saw the addition of a standard nose mounted cannon.

Fourth Generation
The F-15 Eagle.
Lessons learned from Vietnam resulted in the return of the dogfighter.  It was no longer enough for the jet fighter to be fast, it had to be agile as well.  "Teen" fighters like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F-18 not only offered exceptional performance as fighters, but they were all pushed into duty as strike aircraft as well.  These aircraft were true "multi-role" fighters, able to clear enemy airspace, attack ground targets, or intercept enemy bombers.

As the Cold War came to a close, the Soviet Union changed its philosophy towards fighter design.  No longer satisfied with simply producing inferior fighters like the MiG-23 in overwhelming numbers, new Soviet designs like the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Su-27 Flanker were, in most respects, near equal to or superior than their Western counterparts.

The USSR's answer to the F-16 and F-18, the MiG-29 "Fulcrum".

With the end of the Cold War, governments on both sides found themselves needing to cut back on military spending.  Many promising new designs were left on the drawing board, others were too far along in their development to completely abandon.  New technology developed for the next generation of fighters, like Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, modern computer technology, data linking and vectored thrust engines, found its way into the current generation.  These fighters were not considered advanced enough to be considered "Fifth Generation" fighters, yet they were considered a step beyond the "Fourth Generation".  This category includes the so-called "eurocanards" (Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen), the F-18E/F/G Super Hornet and modernized versions of Fulcrum and Flanker.  These fighters are often considered "Four Plus" or Generation 4.5.

The Eurofighter Typhoon:  Not quite "Fifth Generation" but close.

Fifth Generation

The United State's response to the Fulcrum and Flanker was to produce the undisputed king of the skies.  Proposals were made for an "Advanced Tactical Fighter" or ATF.  After years of development, the F-22 Raptor emerged as the world's first, and so far only, operational fifth generation fighter.  Meant to replace the aging F-15, the F-22 stood out in following ways.

The first, and so far, only Fifth Gen fighter in service:  The F-22.

  • Stealth:  Using radar absorbing materials and designs to reduce radar signature.
  • Supercruise:  Using powerful, efficient engines to achieve supersonic speed without afterburners.
  • Supermaneuverability:  Using advanced flight control, thrust-vectoring, and/or aerodynamics to achieve agility unheard of in previous designs.
  • Advanced sensors:  Using modern AESA radars, data links, and infrared tracking systems to provide a clearer picture of the battlefield.
The F-22 has yet to meet its match in the air.  Unwilling to let the F-22 find its way into undesirable hands, export sales were forbidden, leaving the U.S.A. as the only operator.  It has become a victim of its own superiority, however.  It has no real adversary for it to face, each copy costs close to $200 million, and for every hour in the air it costs another $44,000 and 30 hours of maintenence.  In 2011, the F-22 was discontinued after 187 of the originally planned 750 aircraft were built.

The West's only "Fifth Generation" fighter in current production, the F-35.
The saga of the Fifth Generation fighter does not end with the F-22, however.  After the ATF program came the Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF program.  Considered as the largest military procurement program in history, its aim was to produce a fighter to supplement the bleeding edge F-22.  Since the F-22 was to replace the F-15, another, cheaper fighter was needed to replace other aircraft that would soon be ready for retirement.  The JSF program was proposed to save money by developing a common, stealthy platform that could be adapted to many separate roles.  Its development so far has been plagued with design issues, cost overruns, and missed deadlines.  Also, despite being marketed as "Fifth Generation" like it big brother, the F-22, the F-35 makes do without supermaneuverability and supercruise, relying on its stealth design and superior avionics.

Russia's answer to the F-22, the PAK FA.

Not content with conceding its position as a major military aircraft manufacturer, Russian design bureau Sukhoi has brought a potential challenger to the F-22's air superiority throne.  The Sukhoi T-50 prototype, known as the PAK FA is clearly a fifth generation fighter.  Stealthy design, supercruise, vectored thrust  (3D as opposed the the F-22's 2D nozzles), and cutting edge radar and avionics will easily put it in the F-22 fighting class.  Although still currently in the prototype stage, the PAK FA is being marketed to other countries.

The newest contender:  The Chengdu J-20
No longer satisfied with fielding Soviet era jet fighters, China recently made it very clear they wish to strike out on their own when it comes to fighter development and production.  Not only have they produced gen 4.5 J-10 fighter, but they have recently revealed their own 5th generation fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20.  Not much is know about the J-20 yet for sure, but it is obviously a stealthy design and will more than likely be close to the F-22 and PAK FA in performance, including supercruise, superagility, and AESA radar.  Whether or not the J-20 will be marketed to other countries remains to be seen, but seems likely.

Sixth Generation

Early Boeing concept drawing for a sixth generation "F/A-XX"
No other fifth generation aircraft are known to be in development at this point, but the U.S. Navy has recently announced its F/A-XX fighter program, looking for a "Sixth Generation" fighter to enter service around the year 2025.  This new fighter would incorporate more advanced technology, including the option of operating with a pilot or without.
What may come:  The F-35A with Canadian markings.
Fifth generation fallacy:  
The predominant reason given for Canada's selection of the F-35 is that "it is the only fifth generation fighter available to Canada".  This is true...  Sort of.  The F-22 Raptor was never made available for sale outside the U.S.  Even if it was, it would be doubtful if Canada's relatively meager defense budget could afford a fighter that cost $200 million per copy and $44,000 per hour to fly.  Even the U.S. government considers the fighter too expensive and has cut F-22 production.

The archetype:  Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor.
As stated previously, what differentiated the F-22 from its F-15 predecessor was its stealth, supercruise, super-maneuverability, and sensors.  Upcoming rivals like Russian PAK FA and the Chinese J-20 promise similar capabilities.

The F-35's marketing seems to suggest near F-22 level of performance for a much more affordable price.  Since the F-35 is stated to be "Fifth Generation", it must have many of the F-22's benefits, right?  Well...  Not really.

Family resemblence:  F-35(top) and F-22(bottom).

Placed side-by-side, the family resemblance is clear.  The F-35 looks very much like a smaller, single engine, F-22.  Both are obviously stealthy designs, with internal weapon bays and similar layouts.  Appearances can be deceiving however, as the F-35 lacks some of the F-22's key "fifth generation" features.

That one, single engine of the F-35 is unable to match the power-to-weight ratio of the F-22's massive twin engines.  This leaves the F-35 incapable of supercruising.  If the F-35 pilot wishes to go supersonic, afterburner power is the only option.  This, of course, rapidly burns fuel and makes infrared tracking much easier.  Top speed of the F-35 is said to be mach 1.6.  This means it has a top speed less than the F-18s and F-16s it is meant to replace.

The F-35 also lacks the F-22's vectored thrust engine nozzles.  This, combined with its relatively smaller wings and lack of any aerodynamic tricks like canards mean that it lacks the F-22 super-maneuverability.  Worse still, the F-35's design suggests that it may offer little improvement over second generation fighters like the F-104 Starfighter and F-105 Thunderchief.  At the very best, it will offer little improvement over current fourth generation fighters like the F-18 and F-16.

Where the F-35 does shine is sensors and avionics.  Making use of modern computing power, AESA radar, and infrared sensors, the F-35 should be able to offer its pilots a crystal clear picture of the battlefield.  Combined with a data link capable of sharing information with friendly forces, the F-35 should actually prove superior to the F-22 in this department, despite having a physically smaller radar.

The F-35's cockpit discards traditional displays in favor of a single color screen and helmet mounted optics.
Then there is the F-35's most famous feature, stealth.  What does it matter if the F-35 is slow and clumsy, if the enemy can't even see it?  The word "stealth" brings to mind the Romulan Warbird from Star Trek, turning invisible and firing on its targets with impunity as Captain Kirk and Spock fired blindly into space.

Cloaking device?  Not so much.
Stealth doesn't turn an aircraft invisible.  What it does do is make an aircraft harder to detect, usually by absorbing or diverting enemy radar waves away so that they do not give away the aircraft's location.  This makes the the aircraft harder to detect, but not impossible.  Shorter range infrared tracking is still possible, and advances in computing power can boost a faint radar signal to the point of detection.

Although a stealthy design, from the sides and front, the F-35 is not as stealthy as the F-22.  From the rear, the F-35's traditional round engine makes it as stealthy as most other single engine fighters, which is to say, not at all.  The F-35's stealthiness also takes a hit if it is required to mount any weapons or fuel tanks externally.  More on this later.

So, despite being a "Fifth Generation" fighter, the F-35 simply doesn't offer all the features of the arch-typical Fifth Generation F-22.  It doesn't offer supercruise, super-maneuverability, nor the same level of stealthiness.  It does offer true "fifth generation" avionics, but many so called "Fourth generation plus" fighters do as well.  If fighters like the Typhoon and Super Hornet can be considered "Fourth Plus" generation, maybe the F-35 should be considered a "Fifth minus" generation fighter.


  1. Hi, I think that the f 35 was a bad option for jsf and that they should have gone for the mcdonnell douglas jsf.

  2. Speed ​​is not important except if exceed mach 4. If a plane flies at Mach 2 or 3, your speed will not save him from being hit by a modern missile. However, the F-35 will benefit with next engines "Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology".
    Finally, a plane that can brake in the air (F-35B) can not lack of maneuverability.
    If a war were to occur today, Russian opponents would be in trouble. Just have 6 T-50.

  3. The F-35 was to be an affordable choice but Lockheed let greed befall it. Should go with Silent Eagle this is a proven war fighter still capable and if painted with radar absorbing paint would work fine and better then F-35 greed plane.

  4. The Lockheed F-35 Greed plane can be out flown easly by the F-16 why not just make more new f-16 and paint with Radar absorbing paint would be better then F-35 greed bomb give the Marines the Vtol aircraft and cancel F-35 program and buy New strike Eagle Silent to replace F-16 cause lockheed wants or will want a billion dollar a copy when it is all over.

  5. F35 has rear stealth features. Read

    F35 can fly at Mach 1.2 without afterburners.