As tensions between the world’s major powers continue to simmer – access to highly capable fifth-generation fighter aircraft has emerged as one of the major battlegrounds for expanding their respective spheres of influence. However, Turkey has thrown a spanner in the works with the release of its TF-X program, providing renewed avenues for programs like Japan’s X-3.
As the fifth-generation revolution continues to transform Australian and allied air forces, regional air forces have been modernising and expanding their own fighter fleets to bolster the combat capability of their fighter forces, with the domestic development of comparable fifth-generation platforms key to establishing and maintaining regional air and multi-domain dominance.
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.
However, the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the increasing introduction of highly-capable fourth plus generation combat aircraft – is threatening to serve as a repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the end of traditional dog fights.
Enter the International Paris Air Show and revelations by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), which has been urged by the Turkish government to step-up its development of a highly capable, twin engine, air superiority focused fifth-generation fighter aircraft following continued disputes between the US and Turkey over the latter's planned acquisition of the Russian-designed S-400 air and missile defence system in conjunction with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
TAI general manager Temel Kotil set the bar high, stating that "It [TF-X] is going to be the best fighter aircraft in Europe" and expected the maiden flight to be conducted in 2025.
Turkey's push for a highly capable, fifth-generation fighter aircraft highlights the seeming proliferation of the technologies which characterise fifth-generation aircraft and lends growing credibility to the continuing specialisation of aircraft – with a focus on air superiority and multi-role capabilities in the form of a traditional 'high'-'low' capability mix.
Renewed international development?
Recent changes within the US political establishment, notably the election of President Donald Trump, has triggered a major rethink in the policies that govern America's arms exports, opening the door for Japan to engage with major US defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to support Japan's domestic development of a large, low-observable air superiority fighter to replace its fleet of locally built F-15J aircraft.
While Japan has publicly committed to acquiring a fleet of 147 F-35s, including a fleet of 42 short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variants, the Japanese government has remained focused on procuring a fifth-generation air dominance fighter, with or without US help, to counter the growing challenges it faces in its direct region.
This resulted in the development of the X-2 Shinshin, a technology demonstrator that proved Japan's domestic aerospace industry could produce an indigenous stealth fighter design capable of competing with the world's best. Both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have actively supported Japan's continued development of the Shinshin concept, raising renewed questions about a US commitment to reopening the F-22 Raptor line.
Recognising the increasing proliferation of fifth-generation technology and the emerging peer competitor capabilities and previous attempts at acquiring the F-22, both Japan and Australia are well positioned to support the reopening and modernisation of the US F-22 Raptor line, estimated to be worth approximately US$9.9 billion for non-recurring start-up costs according to a US Congress report and an additional US$40.4 billion to acquire 194 Raptors for the US Air Force.
What this House Armed Services Committee report fails to account for is an allied acquisition and integration within the advanced Raptor development supply chain – most notably Japan and Australia, which are both widely respected US allies and industrial partners within the existing F-35 supply chain. The acquisition is not without risk, however, as both Japan and Australia would need to at least match the US order of 194 air frames.
Doubling down and future-proofing capabilities
While a joint US, Japanese and Australian acquisition of at least 388 air frames would serve as the basis for re-opening the Raptor line – expanding the export opportunities of the Raptor to include other key 'Five Eyes' allies like Canada and the UK, both of which are currently undergoing an air force recapitalisation, modernisation or research and development programs of their own, would further reduce the costs associated with reopening the line and acquiring new Raptor air frames.
Australian procurement could mean enjoying a highly capable, interoperable and future-proofed air frame operated by Japan, a key regional ally, and potentially the US and UK, which agreed with the Japanese government in 2017 to collaborate in the joint development of a fifth-generation aircraft to replace the Royal Air Force's Typhoons within the next two decades.
However, the US Air Force, US Navy and European nations are pushing forward with the development of next-generation, sixth-generation air combat capabilities – with the focus on countering "adversaries equipped with next-generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems (IADS), passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment that will exist in the 2030-2050 time frame".
The US Air Force has sought to identify the capabilities of the 'Next Generation Tactical Aircraft' air superiority/dominance fighter jet expected to enter service in the 2030s. As part of this identification process, the US Air Force identified a suite of capabilities needed to survive in the increasingly complex future air combat environment.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has also recognised a number of major capability gaps in both the F-35C and the F/A-18E/F and G series Super Hornet and Growler strike aircraft, namely the lack of low observable coatings limiting survivability in complex integrated air defence environments and the comparatively short unrefuelled combat radius exposing the US Navy's aircraft carriers to advanced Russian and Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.
As a result of the different operating environments and requirements, the Pentagon, Air Force and Navy would be expected to avoid the joint development program model, which, while delivering the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, presented a series of challenges resulting in compromised capabilities.
Europe's joint Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program is designed to serve as part of a system of systems, consolidating an array of interconnected and interoperable elements, including unmanned medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drones, the existing fleet of Eurofighter and Rafale fighter aircraft, cruise missiles and drone swarms.
The FCAS will serve as a critical component of a connected and interoperable system with a vast perimeter of specialist mission aircraft, satellites, NATO systems and a distributed network of land and naval combat systems. FCAS is designed to assure European autonomy in the air and space domain, while enhancing existing political, strategic and industrial partnerships in Europe.
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation's immediate north, particularly in the face of increasingly capable Russian and Chinese air frames and integrated air and A2AD networks, will necessitate investment in and acquisition of a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, beginning in the mid 2030s.