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 the Indo-Pacific region.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas air frames 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.
Indo-Pacific Asia's fighter fleets are made up of fighter aircraft ranging from third to fifth-generation aircraft, each with unique capabilities and roles within the regional balance of power. Prior to diving into the concept of the 'high-low' fighter mix, it is critical to understand the differences between the generations of aircraft operating in the Indo-Pacific.
- Third-generation fighter: Designed and developed between the early 1960s and the 1970s, these aircraft placed renewed focus on manoeuvrability and traditional ground attack capabilities. Third-generation aircraft also saw the increased use of guided missiles in combat, the introduction of analogue avionics systems and improved aerodynamic performance. Examples of third-generation fighter aircraft include the US F-4 Phantom II, the French Mirage F1, the Russian MiG 25 Foxbat and Chinese Shenyang J-8.
- Fourth-generation fighter: Developed and in service from about 1980 until the present, fourth-generation fighter aircraft placed renewed emphasis on manoeuvrability and air-to-air combat capability, supported by improved fly-by-wire flight control systems, improved avionics, the introduction of digital computers, aerodynamic air frames and on board radar systems to leverage advances made in long-range air-to-air missiles. Fourth-generation combat aircraft also marked the introduction of multi-role fighter aircraft. Examples of fourth-generation fighter aircraft include the US F-15 Eagle, F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, Russian MiG-29 and Su-27, French Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Chinese Shenyang J-10 and J-11.
- 4.5 generation fighter: Evolved variants of the fourth-generation, incorporating advances in microchip and semiconductor technology to improve avionics, radar, data links and network-centric warfare. Additionally, these aircraft incorporate advances in radar cross section reducing design and materials, advanced GPS guided weapons and in some cases thrust vectoring. Examples of 4.5 generation aircraft include the US F-15E Strike Eagle and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, the Russian Su-30MKI and MKK variants, Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale variants.
- Fifth-generation fighter: The pinnacle of fighter aircraft, incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders. Examples of fifth-generation aircraft include the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 and FC-31.
Air superiority and air dominance
Increasingly advanced, highly-capable fourth, 4.5 and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that combine low observable coatings and airframes, increased aerodynamic performance, advanced sensor suites and computational power like the air dominance/air superiority specialised F-15 Eagle-series, F-22 Raptor, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 are at the pinnacle of the contemporary air power hierarchy.
Almost taking a leaf out of the years leading up to the confrontation between American and Soviet aircraft over Vietnam, the US and many allies, including Australia, have been repeatedly told that air superiority, namely traditional dog fighting, is a thing of the past as a result of increased sensor capabilities, low observability and advanced air-to-air missile (AAM) systems – resulting in the development of the costly, flying super computer, the F-35.
However, the specialised focus of platforms like the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 series of air superiority fighter aircraft – both of which have larger combat radius, higher-speeds, larger weapons payloads and better aerodynamic performance – raises questions about the air dominance and air superiority capability of the F-35 in the face of seemingly superior, specialised peer-competitor aircraft.
Jack of all trades, a master of none
The F-35 was designed to serve a number of roles, replacing the growing fleet of highly specialised aircraft in the arsenals of the US and allies, like Australia – including the F/A-18 Hornet-series, F-16 Falcon-series, the Harrier-series and venerable A-10 Warthog close support aircraft – resulted in an aircraft designed to fulfill the 'low' end of the capability mix.
While controversial, the comparatively poor aerodynamic performance, combined with reduced payload and combat radius when pitted against 'high' performance combat aircraft across the Indo-Pacific, raises questions about the ability of the contemporary allied air forces to penetrate the increasingly complex and long-range anti-access/area denial challenges in the region, and the survivability of these platforms.
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia's doorstep, combined with similar concerns developing among allies including the US and Japan, also raises questions about developing and introducing a highly-capable, high-speed, low observable, air-superiority focused platform to complement the 'low' end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces.