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.
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 be the world's premier air superiority platform – and increasingly developed as a result of air-to-surface penetrating strike operations in heavily defended integrated air and missile defence networks in the Middle East – the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor represents the pinnacle of air combat system evolution and technological development.
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 air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
The Raptor Ban - driving unit cost and hindering allied operations
The world's first fifth-generation aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was first introduced in the mid-2000s and designed to replace the US Air Force's fleet of ageing F-15C/D Eagles – incorporating full spectrum, low-observable stealth characteristics, super cruise, and super manoeuvrability in an air frame designed to fight, win and maintain US and allied air superiority against even the most advanced enemy integrated air-and-missile defence systems and air combat capabilities.
However, shrinking defence budgets in the aftermath of the Cold War, a lack of credible peer adversary to US air superiority and a Congress-implemented export ban despite requests from Japan, Australia and Israel hindered even America's ability to field a credible fleet of these technological marvels – with an original order of 750 units cut to 195, the unit price rose beyond what was sustainable, paving the way for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family to fill the role.
Despite this, US Air Force Colonel Brian Baldwin, Group Commander 13th Air Expeditionary Force, who is in Australia to participate in the 2019 Exercise Talisman Sabre, has set tongues wagging with statements made to the Australian media regarding allied access to the formidable air dominance platform.
"I wish we had more of them. I wish all of our closest friends could have some. We obviously have to take care of where we take the jet so we keep it as a special capability and it’s a pleasure to be able to bring it down to Australia," COL Baldwin is reported saying at RAAF Base Amberley in south-east Queensland.
The export ban on the F-22 was driven largely by US-concerns about the possibility of Israel exporting the top secret technologies present in the F-22 to potential adversaries like Russia and China – this ban subsequently left key US-allies like Australia, Japan and the UK with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while also placing the increasing burden of establishing and maintaining air superiority and air dominance on a limited number of American Raptors and fourth-generation fighter aircraft.
A return to air superiority and air dominance
Looking abroad, 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.
Turkey's push for a highly capable, fifth-generation fighter aircraft highlights the seeming proliferation of the technologies that 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.
By our powers combined
In response to the rapidly changing global environment and air combat capabilities, allies in Japan, the UK and across Europe have initiated the development of their own fifth and 'sixth'-generation fighter aircraft – Japan in particular has been one of the most vocal aspirants of a potential lax in America's ban on the Raptor – beginning the collaborative development of a replacement for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force's (JASDF) fleet of F-15J.
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 – in a combined manner.
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.
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 A2/AD networks, will necessitate investment in and acquisition of a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the RAAF's fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, beginning in the mid 2030s.