Those 176,000 of us who headed out to Aviation Nation 2014 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada were treated to a unique opening ceremony that gave a glimpse of the future of the US Air Force. As the last notes of the national anthem were being played two sharp-edged fifth generation fighter aircraft appeared from behind the crowd to open the air show in spectacular fashion!
One was the operational USAF Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter (with an additional strike capability) and the other the brand new Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (a Conventional Takeoff and Landing CTOL multi-role fighter) which is currently undergoing trial flights in preparation for entering the USAF to replace the Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon / Viper. The USAF plans to purchase 1,763 F-35A’s with the first deliveries being fully operational by December 2016.
What is unique about a fifth generation fighter compared to earlier generation aircraft? Lockheed-Martin states the following:
A 5th Generation fighter has advanced stealth, exceptional agility and maneuverability, sensor and information fusion, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. 5th Generation technology provides greater survivability, situational awareness, and effectiveness for pilots, as well as improved readiness and lower support costs. The F-35 also delivers additional 5th Generation features, such as multi-spectral sensors, interoperability and modernized avionics.
In other words they can work together like a wolf pack, quickly sneak up on you, get the kill or strike a target and get out before you know what hit you! The F-22 has vector thrusters enabling it to virtually stop in mid-air and change direction very quickly which is an excellent advantage in air combat. In the case of the F-35 the pilot can effectively “see through” the aircraft with a special helmet and sensors around the aircraft to engage targets from any direction. Being a multi-role fighter the F-35 will not only be able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground missions but also intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions making it a complete package (although not superior to the F-22 in air combat it is designed to be able to effectively take on any enemy opponent and win in an air-to-air encounter).
The US leads the way in this fifth generation technology but other nations continue to strive to compete. It will be interesting to see how things further develop in the fifth generation market in regards particularly to Chinese and Russian equivalents but also what US manufacturers come up with next to maintain that sharper edge. Exciting times lay ahead in military aviation!