Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War, to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War; the latest two generations of fighters are the pinnacle of these earlier designs.
Fighter aircraft, like every facet of military technology, are rapidly evolving. The current global and regional transition from fourth- to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in Australia's region.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
The formal introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor in the mid-2000s led many nations to begin to speed up the process of developing their own fifth-generation air combat capability to minimise any perceived or actual capability gaps in their traditional air and naval aviation forces.
Russia began the development of its own Su-57 in the mid-2000s with a focus on countering the growing fifth-generation capabilities of the US Air Force, while China brought the J-20 and carrier-focused FC-31 to the global stage, designed to counter the both the F-22 and F-35. Meanwhile, the US and allies extended their fifth-generation capability gap through the development of the largest defence project in history, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
These developments have recently heightened the growing geo-political and strategic competition between the US and China, with Russia confirming the sale option for its air superiority specialised Su-57 to China, providing the rising global and regional superpower with access to three highly capable, fifth-generation combat aircraft. Additionally, the sale of such a capability to China provides avenues for the nation to further develop its local aerospace industry, with opportunities for backward engineering.
The leading edge fifth-generation force
As the world's leading air power, the US has invested heavily in maintaining its qualitative and quantitative edge over potential peer and near-peer competitors like Russia and China. Fifth-generation air combat capability is key to the US regional strategy, the US Air Force, Navy and Marines fixed-wing aviation forces are currently deep into the transition phase of the fifth-generation integration cycle.
The US Air Force has led the way for integrating fifth-generation platforms following the introduction of the air superiority focused F-22 fleet, which was finalised with the final delivery for the Raptor in 2012. While the Raptor program only saw a small portion of the planned aircraft acquired due to increasing costs, program delays and an apparent lack of potential peer adversary, the program paved the way for integrating the JSF as the backbone for the US Armed Forces air combat capability.
JSF was designed as part of the US 'high-low' fifth-generation fighter mix as well as serving as the basis for the air combat capabilities for US allies like Australia. The JSF program has, like its Raptor predecessor, faced development and cost overruns hindering the introduction of the F-35C and F-35B variants.
The mission-ready F-35C is the latest addition to US Navy’s Carrier Air Wing. With its stealth technology, state-of-the-art avionics, advanced sensors, weapons capacity and range, the aircraft carrier-based F-35C provides unprecedented air superiority, interdiction, suppression of enemy air defences and close-air-support, as well as advanced command and control functions through fused sensors.
The joint Navy and Marines use of the F-35C leverages the unique capability of operating from a carrier deck with the unmatched fifth-generation capabilities of stealth, fused sensors and reliability, making the F-35C the Navy’s future first-day-of-the-war strike fighter. The Navy and Marines require an aircraft capable of overcoming a variety of threats — surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles and tactical aircraft. By leveraging this potent combination of stealth, advanced jamming and threat system destruction, the F-35C enhances survivability and increases mission success rates.
Meanwhile, the growing capability of the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variant – which is beginning to see the widespread introduction into service with both the US Marine Corps and both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and is expected to be introduced by the Japanese Self Defense Force's Izumo Class warships – is providing further fifth-generation capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.
The 'B' variant is the world's first supersonic, stealth STOVL aircraft and is designed to operate from both austere bases and a range of fixed-wing aircraft capable ships. These include large deck amphibious warfare ships, like the US Wasp and America Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), the UK's Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Italian Conte di Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi aircraft carriers, and future Turkish LHDs, which are based on the Juan Carlos/Canberra Class LHDs.
The underdog fifth-gen fighter powers
China's Air Force has undergone a period of modernisation and expansion in line with the country's growing ambitions in Indo-Pacific Asia. China's first fifth-generation fighter aircraft, and the world's third such aircraft, incorporates radar reducing cross sections and materials, high-capacity sensor integration and advanced engines.
While little is known about the specifics of the fifth-generation air superiority fighter, designed to counter the American F-22 Raptor, it has a max speed of Mach 2.5+ and incorporates a variety of advanced Chinese designed precision-guided bombs, and air-to-air missiles in internal weapons bays and advanced electro-optical targeting systems and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars.
Meanwhile, the Shenyang FC-31, while smaller than the larger J-20 design has given rise to concerns about the introduction of the airframe as a carrier-based aircraft on China's growing fleet of aircraft carriers. The FC-31 incorporates a range of Chinese and Russian technology, mainly Russian-designed jet engines to ensure the J-31 can carry 8,000 kilograms of payload, with four munitions totaling 2,000 kilograms internally, and 6,000 kilograms carried on six external hardpoints; primary armaments include the PL-10 short-range missile and PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missile.
While Russia's Air Force has inherited a variety of Soviet-era fighter aircraft designs, which has up until recently placed the Air Force at a disadvantage as regional nations introduce more advanced aircraft into their own fleets, the Su-57 as Russia's answer to the American F-22 Raptor and the Chinese J-20. The Su-57 is intended to succeed the MiG-29 and Su-27 series fighters in Russian service.
The twin-engine, multi-role air superiority fighter aircraft is the first Russian aircraft to incorporate radar reducing cross sections and materials, high-capacity sensor integration and advanced engines. Su-57 has a supersonic range of about 1,500 kilometres and subsonic range of 3,500 kilometres and max speed of Mach 2. The aircraft is armed with a single 30mm cannon and between 12 and 16 hardpoints, including internal weapons bays capable of carrying Russian made air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-surface munitions, including 'dumb' and 'smart' bombs.
Like the US export-focused F-35, both the Chinese FC-31 and Russian Su-57 have potential for export for nations unable to access or afford advanced US weapons systems, or for nations that act within the sphere of influence of both China and Russia, further complicating strategic planning for American allies, including Australia, as their existing air combat forces come face-to-face with increasingly capable peer competitors.