5th Gen Aircraft Proliferation

One of the problems with the “5th Generation” designation for aircraft is that various definitions have come and gone for what 5th Gen actually means. At one point the ability to supercruise at mach 1.6 was a requirement, and when the F-35 failed to meet that performance goal that requirement to be considered “5th Gen” was quietly dropped. Lockheed Martin isn’t known for being the least ethical of defense contractors for nothing. After all, it would be too simple to just say that 5th Gen aircraft are supersonic and stealthy.

Later on “5th Generation capabilities” touted by Lockheed Martin include just the RADAR:

The F-16V “Viper” advanced avionics configuration also includes a new cockpit Center Pedestal Display, a modernized mission computer, a high-capacity Ethernet data bus, and several other missions systems enhancements that collectively add significant combat capabilities to address the dynamic threat environments emerging in the coming decades.

Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 SABR AESA fire control radar provides 5th Generation air-to-air and air-to-ground radar capability.  http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/press-releases/2015/october/f-16v-takes-flight.html

So which is it? Would cramming a “5th Gen” radar into the subsonic F-117 make it a “5th Gen” fighter? Obviously not, clearly we want our 5th Gen aircraft to have supersonic capabilities.


The Northrup YF-23. Faster and stealthier than the F-22. In other news Northrup was chosen for the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) program, which LM is protesting.

For a more in depth look at LM’s plan to kill the LRSB program, head over to RCD and enjoy. http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/02/20/how_to_kill_the_long_range_strike_bomber_part_1_109051.html

So we are back to the Lockheed Martin level of “5th Generation” means a stealthy supersonic fighter plus whatever other requirements we want to through onto the definition in order to keep our marketing department happy. This is important as it looks like Lockheed Martin is going to continuously change the meaning of “5th Generation” to suit their marketing needs.

A number of air forces have a programme to acquire a fifth-generation fighter, but what qualifies an aircraft to carry that label is a “matter of perspective,” a US industry representative told IHS Jane’s .

Russian industry has consistently referred to the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA as a fifth-generation aircraft, but a careful look at the programme reveals that this is an ‘in-name-only’ designation. What qualifies a fighter aircraft as being a next-generation design is more than just having a stealthy-looking shape, said Lockheed Martin representatives.  http://www.janes.com/article/58166/singapore-airshow-2016-analysis-pak-fa-s-asian-export-hopes-stymied-by-lack-of-fifth-generation-qualities


Sure it’s stealthy and fast, but it’s not real 5th Gen because it lacks other 5th Gen qualities according to the completely unbiased Lockheed Martin Corporation….

I believe that the “US industry representative” in the top paragraph is one of the Lockheed Martin representatives mentioned in the paragraph below. But even if it is not the case, the point is still valid, right now “5th Generation” simply means whatever Lockheed Martin wants it to mean. Notice that the LM representatives did not talk about the PAK-FA in terms of stealth, speed, and maneuverability only in the realm of “other” characteristics.

“People think stealth is what defines 5th Gen[eration aircraft]. It’s not the only thing.
It’s stealth and then the avionics and the fusion of avionics.”
—Gen. Mike Hostage, Commander, Air Combat Command, U.S. Air Force (this quote taken directly from the LM F-35 capabilities web page).

However, if we look at the “other capabilities” they are all pretty much hush hush can’t tell you without having to then kill you super secret squirrel stuff. But since Defense Contractors also have to sell their products, we can get a pretty good look at what the “other” capabilities happen to be.

1, a broadband data bus. The F-16V upgrade included an ethernet data bus. Hopefully this is on a commercial switched standard (twisted pair (10/100/1000/10,000BaseT) instead of the older coaxial standard (10Base2/5 aka thinlan and thicklan). A switched environment is better because if you set up device correctly, you can put the main computer on a ten gigabit link to a switch, and then every other sensor on a 100 megabit link, and using fast switching the computer can receive updates from all sensors effectively in real time and a single device failure doesn’t drop the whole network (except the central switch, that is a single point of failure). With a coaxial bus architecture only one device can talk at any given time, so if all sensors are pushing updates the bus can be saturated by collisions and the failure of a single device can knock out the entire network. The Mitsubishi F-3 5th Generation fighter is slated to go to a fiber optic bus for increased bandwidth and avoid electromagnetic interference, and fiber optics are lighter than shielded twisted pair or coaxial cables. (Source for F-3 data bus: http://thediplomat.com/2015/12/who-will-win-asias-fifth-generation-fighter-race/ )

2, a “fifth gen RADAR” of some sort. Essentially this is AESA. The power levels, steering geometry, and sensitivity are all classified, but I feel quite confident that the Europeans at least can easily make a 5th Gen AESA radar, with the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans right behind. Even if they can’t develop it themselves they can certainly clone it. The Russians remain a bit of a mystery to me, but given their proclivity to advanced military electronics (EW for example) I would give them the benefit of the doubt.

3, some sort of “sensor fusion” which uses multiple sensors to feed situation awareness to the pilot. This means a central computer capable of taking multiple sensor inputs from the data bus and painting a picture for the pilot. The idea here is to remove pilot load, so instead of a missile warning receiver just turning on a blinking red LED and an audible warning tone, it pushes information to the screen about where the missile is coming from. So instead of just knowing THAT something is coming, the pilot knows from where, how fast, and has an advantage on deciding what to do about it. Since the AESA RADAR is already a sensor, this has to be something additional like a Electronic Support suite, Infra Red Search and Track (IRST) or Electro-Optical Tracking System sensors.  http://www.janes.com/article/53064/beijing-tech-show-highlights-advances-in-chinese-fighter-sensors

With these non-airframe considerations in mind (after all, we aren’t concerned with being supersonic and stealthy here) I think that other nations have a serious shot at making credible fifth generation fighter aircraft and right now the most likely are China and Japan.

The Chengdu JF-17 is roughly comparable to the F-16 the Pakistani Air Force flies, but at half the cost. The JF-17 was the first fighter aircraft I know of that was intentionally designed with an open systems architecture and programmed in C++.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAC/PAC_JF-17_Thunder Any one want to bet that the J-20 and J-31 stealthy supersonic aircraft will also have an open systems architecture and C++ programming?


Chengdu has proven experience in open systems architecture and C++ programming from its work with Pakistan on the JF-17 so even if initial RADAR and sensor fusion is poor expect it to get better with time.

Take a look at the F-35 C++ programming standards: http://www.stroustrup.com/JSF-AV-rules.pdf  and realize that was published over a decade ago. Why Chinese can make it work and Lockheed Martin is struggling in a very public way is interesting.

So while the PAK-FA doesn’t seem to have “5th Gen” qualities now, that really isn’t the point. The F-22 took almost a decade to get the kinks worked out to be ready for its combat debut, and the F-35 is going to go well beyond that especially if you consider the planned adoption timeline (the reason the USAF and US Navy are sending so many legacy fighters through Service Life Extension Programs aka SLEP right now). Getting the airframe right first means that the electronic toys that get mounted in the frame don’t have to be perfect right away (even Lockheed Martin makes this excuse as it calls parts that haven’t even been mounted on an F-35 already obsolete through planned obsolescence).

Am I really worried about the PAK-FA? No, right now Russia can’t afford to buy them in enough numbers to compete with the F-22. I’m not worried about the J-20 or J-31 either, because China seems quite transparent in wanting regional hegemony and not world domination. Despite no takers for the J-31 now, if they can make the performance on par with the F-35 but at half the price the way the JF-17 is half the price of an F-16 it will likely get some buyers, especially if it has an open architecture that can be customized by the client.

That Japan and Korea are looking to build 5th Gen fighters that are NOT the F-35 should tell us something, and it is probably that they have come to the same conclusion that Israel did concerning the F-35, that the software dependencies for mission readiness are an unacceptable risk for the defense of South Korea and Japan in the face of Chinese regional hegemony. Source for Israeli hesitation about the F-35 ALIS software http://carolineglick.com/the-iafs-achilles-heel/ . This is completely understandable, no nation wants an ally to be able to ground their entire fleet of 5th Gen fighter aircraft OR have the enemy disable the entire fleet through a cyber denial of service or physical denial of service (cutting undersea cables and taking out satellites).


No thrust vectoring, no super maneuverability, no super cruise at mach 1.6, but it’s got a cool AESA RADAR, an EW awareness suite, and an Electro Optical system all fused together by software in development for more than a decade yet nowhere near ready for prime time.

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2 Responses to 5th Gen Aircraft Proliferation

  1. roger says:

    …this is on a commercial switched standard…
    No, it’s probably based on the Time Triggered Gigabit Ethernet which NASA paid Honeywell to develop.


    • rthtgnbs says:

      Not saying you are wrong, as I don’t have any proof either way, but TTE for NASA’s Orion Spacecraft started in 2006, a year after the C++ coding standards document I linked to. So if it was added, it was added after the JSF program was already up and running.

      But if they did use TTE Gig, that would be a smart move. TTE is an expansion of ethernet protocol, not a total replacement so it works in a switched environment (and bus environment). Essentially it’s a software upgrade of the same hardware used by 802.3 networking. Should every segment in the network have the same bandwidth the gain from TTE is that no one gets cut off and messages can get through (although at a slower pace). If you push a ten gigabit link to the central computer, you can avoid that as the ten gig link can hold the full bandwidth of the ten single gigabit links whether you are using TTE or regular ethernet.


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