In this article, I’ll be discussing the current paradigm of air combat and what makes fifth-generation aircraft special. If you haven’t had a chance to read my previous article on what an aircraft generation is, and how we got here, make sure to give it a read for some important background information.
In 2017, I was flying the F-16 block 50 and was approaching the end of my assignment. The way assignments work in the Air Force is that you submit a dream sheet ranking all the different aircraft, locations, and non-flying jobs available. What you get depends on your individual ranking along with the needs of the Air Force.
During that assignment, I had a chance to go to combat and fly in over 10 large “Flag-Level” exercises. If you ever hear a pilot talking about “Green Flag, Checkered Flag” or “Red Flag,” chances are they’re talking about a large U.S. Air Force war game exercise.
I also had a chance to fly several times alongside the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-35. Though the F-35 was not combat-capable at the time, what I saw blew me away and caused me to put it at the top of my dream sheet. This is the reason why:
Combat aviation is constantly evolving, and just like Darwin’s theory, it’s survival of the fittest. New technologies are introduced, which cause previous tactics and aircraft to become obsolete, which then drives a new round of innovation. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was about going high and fast—it was the rise of the interceptor. In the ’70s and ’80s, with the help of pilots like Col. John Boyd, highly maneuverable aircraft like the F-16 Viper were designed to dominate the within-visual-range arena during dogfights. And since the turn of the century, air combat has gone through another great change.
Air combat is not the one-versus-one cage match that’s often portrayed in the movies. It usually involves hundreds of aircraft going against an enemy that’s just as well-equipped. And it’s not just limited to the sky; warfare is multi-domain, meaning you could be fighting against ground, space, and cyberspace assets as well as air. Instead of a one-on-one cage match, it’s more like a football game multiplied by 100. Individual ability is only important if it benefits the whole. Fifth-generation technology leverages advances in technology to make aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 the quarterbacks of the air.
One of the key attributes that make this possible is stealth, which allows an aircraft to be much more survivable in a highly contested environment. The next is great sensors which enable the pilot to see everything that’s happening in the battlespace. Because these aircraft absorb a near-incomprehensible amount of information, the next trait–data fusion–enables the pilot to easily understand that data. And because fourth-generation aircraft, like the F-16 and F-15, will be with us for at least the next 30 years, the last attribute–the ability to share that view of the battlespace with other aircraft through networks–makes for a much more lethal force.
If you talk to any current fighter pilot who’s had a chance to integrate with assets like the F-22 and F-35 they’ll tell you (after the standard fighter pilot ridicule) that these aircraft are absolutely essential to future conflicts, especially the ones highlighted in our most recent National Defense Strategy.
Feature photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham