Fighter aircraft generations issue

Introduction

Jet fighters are grouped into generations based on their design characteristics. But there are problems with that approach.

One would logically assume that higher the generation number, better is the aircraft when it comes to air-to-air combat. But examination of history shows that this is not true.

First generation fighters are Me-262, F-86, MiG-15 and MiG-17. Second generation fighters are Dassault Mirage III, Saab Draken, F-104, F-105 and MiG-21. Third generation fighters are F-4, F-5, MiG-23, MiG-25 and Saab Viggen. Fourth generation fighters are Dassault Rafale, MiG-31, MiG-29, Su-27, Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15 and F-16. Only active fifth generation fighter is the F-22 Raptor, whereas J-20 and PAK FA are in development.

First, second and third generation fighters have all seen combat in the Vietnam war, which can thus serve as a perfect case study of wether higher generation number automatically means more capable fighter aircraft.

History

In Vietnam war, NVAF lost 131 fighters (NVAF claim) or 210 fighters (US claim) of which 110 MiG-17, 10 MiG-19 and 90 MiG-21. If NVAF figure is correct, it might indicate even worse performance for radar-guided missiles than thought. According to US claims, MiG-21 achieved 85 kills and 95 losses. F-4 allegedly achieved 151 kill while suffering 41 loss to aircraft. As opponent’s losses are usually overreported, F-4 may have achieved “only” 94 kills, possibly even less. This 2:1 kill/loss ratio is consistent with what was reported in April 1982 study “Comparing the effectiveness of air-to-air fighters” by Pierre Sprey. Russian records indicate 103 F-4s shot down by MiG-21 in exchange for 53 lost. Considering that pilots tend to overreport successes due to confusion of combat – mistaking damaged enemy aircraft or one going low to avoid attack for a shootdown, for example – actual exchange ratio was likely near parity (41 F-4 loss and 53 MiG-21 losses). In summer of 1972, air-to-air combat resulted in loss of 12 MiG-21s, 4 MiG-17/19 and 11 F-4s, for a kill/loss ratio of 1,4:1 in favor of Phantom. It should be noted that this was late in the war when F-4s would have better kill/loss ratio than early in the war due to improved pilot training. However, many MiG sorties were bomber intercepts, and MiGs were ordered to ignore escorts and focus on bombers.

It is certain however that F-4 had a negative kill/loss ratio before US pilots started being trained for dogfighting (possibly as much as 3:1 advantage for MiGs); after that, advantage in training over often undertrained (though still competent) NVAF pilots helped level the field. But speaking purely from flight performance viewpoint, Boyd has shown that the F-4 could only fight MiG-21 at low altitude and high speed, and even F-4 pilots were critical of its maneuverability. MiG-21 itself was not a great dogfighter, having difficult handling, and NVAF pilots preferred MiG-17 which did very well against F-4s (and F-105s, though as these were usually used as bombers it is not surprising).

In 1967 and 1973 Israeli-Arab wars, visual-range Mirage III fighters achieved 20:1 kill/loss ratio against MiG-21s. This was primarly due to pilot quality, however Israeli pilots considered Mirage III a far better fighter aircraft than US F-4, which they referred to as “B-4”.

in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, Pakistani visual-range-only F-86s achieved better than 6:1 exchange ratio against Indian supersonic MiG-21s, Su-7s and Hawker Hunters, in good part due to its small visual signature and good cockpit visibility. Only Indian fighter that managed to match the F-86 was also subsonic Folland Gnat, which had advantage of being the smallest fighter in the war. In earlier 1965 war, Gnat also had advantage over F-86: even Pakistani sources credit it with 3 F-86 kills for 2 losses to the F-86, while Indian sources credit it with 7 F-86 kills.

And as I have pointed out in another article: “While comparing total kill/loss ratios, expensive fighters may seem to be better off than less expensive ones. However, this is not due to fighters themselves but because only nations that can afford expense of quality training can also afford expensive fighters. Thus advantage given to fighter by the pilot is unjustly attributed to fighter’s own qualities.”

Comparision of modern fighters

F-35 is often called a “fifth generation fighter”. This is wrong on multiple levels: first, it implies that it is superior in air-to-air combat to “fourth generation” fighters, and second, it implies that valid definition of what makes a “fifth generation” fighter even exists.

Fifth generation is allegedly a term that implies combination of stealth, high maneuverability, advanced avionics, networked data fusion from sensors and avionics, and ability to assume multiple roles. But as Canada’s auditor general noted on page 23, there is no objective definition of the term, or indeed the entire generations division.

Even if definition of fifth generation outlined in the second paragraph of this section is accepted, some aircraft that are commonly defined as fifth generation do not fulfill requirements for definition, and some fourth generation fighters better fit that description than most self-proclaimed fifth generation ones.

Stealth itself is a far more complex issue than what Lockheed Martin propaganda states, and can be divided into visual, EM, infrared and acoustic stealth. Visually, Gripen is the smallest Western fighter, followed by F-16, Rafale, Typhoon, F-18, F-35, F-15 and finally F-22. In EM spectrum, F-22 and F-35 are the only fighters which are stealthy to enemy radars in entire 360-degree horizontal circle; however, Gripen, Rafale and F-16, while not relying on radar LO as their main design point, also have a design which gives them reduced RCS from all aspects. But this is only half an issue; fighter which uses its radar to detect the opponent cannot be called stealthy, and only Rafale, Typhoon and F-35 have IRST. Since F-35s IRST is optimized for ground attack, only Rafale and Typhoon actually have an IR sensor meant for air-to-air combat. On the other hand, Rafale and F-22 are the only fighters which can use opponent’s emissions to attack him, though this capability does not matter much if enemy is not emitting radio signals (radar, IFF or datalinks). Radar signature of each fighter is distictive, meaning that Rafale and F-22 can identify the enemy at BVR just through his radar emissions. IR stealth itself is a toss-up: Gripen C is very small and has low IR signature but cannot supercruise, increasing its IR signature considerably when supersonic. F-16 is larger, with stronger engine and also lacks ability to supercruise. Rafale C is even larger; its engines however have IR signature reduction measures and it is capable of supercruise, meaning that its IR signature at supersonic speeds may be lower than F-16s or Gripen’s. Typhoon can also supercruise, but is even larger than Rafale and has no IR signature reduction measures. F-35 and F-15 have no IR signature reduction measures, are incapable of supercruise and are larger than all fighters mentioned before; F-18 is not much larger than Typhoon or Rafale, but is also incapable of supercruise. F-22 has IR signature reduction measures and is supercruise-capable, but its mammoth size limits utility of these measures in reducing its IR signature. As a result, while F-22 is most stealthy in respect to active X-band radars, and Gripen has lower visual signature, Rafale is overall most stealthy fighter of those compared.

All fighters mentioned, except for F-18E, are also far more maneuverable than the F-35. F-35 itself has a fairly classic aerodynamic configuration, which means that majority of lift comes from wings. But F-35As wing loading is high (428 kg/m2 at combat weight), clearly insufficient to match that of Western air superiority fighter (Rafale C: 276 kg/m2; F-15C: 278 kg/m2; Gripen C: 293 kg/m2; F-22: 314 kg/m2; F-16C: 392 kg/m2). Its thrust-to-weight and thrust-to-drag ratios are also inferior to those of most aircraft mentioned, with only Gripen having lower thrust-to-weight ratio but better thrust-to-drag ratio. Neither does the F-35 have thrust vectoring or close-coupled canards to provide it with improved maneuverability at supersonic speeds and post-stall maneuvering and recovery capability. Rafale, with its high g capability, low wing loading (lowest of fighters compared), excellent thrust-to-drag ratio, adequate thrust-to-weight ratio, excellent responsitivity to control inputs and unmatched roll onset rate again wins.

Advanced avionics are present on most modern fighters. F-22, F-35 and Rafale have AESA radar, with Typhoon being slated to get one. F-35, Rafale and Typhoon also have IRST. F-35s DAS will, if everything goes fine, provide pilot with 360 degree spherical view of his surroundings, but Rafale also has most of that capability (two more IR sensors are required for a spherical view) and F-35s DAS does not work yet. No other fighter mentioned has that capability. Integrated countermeasures are already operational on Rafale (SPECTRA) and Typhoon (DASS), and are planned for Gripen NG.

Networked data fusion is present on F-22, F-35, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, as well as proposed Gripen E. Both Rafale and Typhoon have demonstrated the capability turing Libya campaign. Networking capabilities themselves are already present in a long time in form of NATO Link 16 datalink.

Multirole capability is present on more fighters than not. In fact, only single-role fighters are F-22, F-15A, F-15C and A-10, though A-10 can actually perform multiple roles if required. Rafale is replacement for 7 different types of aircraft in French service; Typhoon is also improving multirole capability, while Gripen was multirole from beginning. Rafale however offers best multirole capability.

Other F-35 “innovations” – such as integrated countermeasures – are operational on Dassault Rafale (SPECTRA) and Eurofighter Typhoon (DASS).

In short, if there is a true fifth generation fighter, it is Dassault Rafale, not the F-35 or even the F-22. But entire “generations” label is misleading. First operational US fighter jet was F-80, followed by F-86, F-100, F-104, F-4, F-15 and F-22, each being (allegedly) a generational improvement over its predecessor. If this division is taken, then F-22 is 7th generation fighter, Rafale is 8th generation, and F-35 is a true 5th generation fighter, being as “capable” in air-to-air as F-4 (some of which are still flown by Luftwaffe).

Bottom line: “fifth generation” label is a myth.

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25 thoughts on “Fighter aircraft generations issue

  1. There seems to be this sort of belief among the F-22 and F-35 fanboys I find that AESA can somehow evade being detected by RWRs. Even if that were the case, the IR signature on large aircraft is still a giveaway.

    The other issue is the high expectations of Pk on missiles, which doesn’t live up to real combat. Good pilots do not sit there and let themselves get hit.

    I suppose a better generation system may be to classify them by time period of emergence. Outside of that, it seems that 5th generation fighters are purely about making the MICC very wealthy.

    • “AESA can somehow evade being detected by RWRs.”

      To be fair, people often understand surface details of how technology works but don’t understand fundamental principles and limitations of said technology. Very often it is intentional however.

      • “To be fair, people often understand surface details of how technology works but don’t understand fundamental principles and limitations of said technology. Very often it is intentional however.”

        Perhaps both.

        As I said, there are plenty of fanboys who are quite ignorant. For BVR to work, the following would have to happen:

        1. Radar stealth would have to be effective against both fighter high frequency radar and wide band ground radar, which simply flies in the face of physics.

        2. The BVR fighter’s radar cannot be detected by RWRs. Again, AESA even with it’s “frequency hopping” does not validate this since RWRs have a wide range.

        3. The BVR fighter must be able to fire without their IR signature being detected by IRST or other passive IR sensors. Not possible because missiles of course give a distinct signature when launched by nature. Also, most BVR fighters tend to be big and heavy, which means their engines will give off a bigger IR signature. Finally, supersonic travel increases your IR signature, although this is a lesser issue simply because most existing BVR fighters lack the fuel fraction to do this for a prolonged period of time (Su-27 variants excepted).

        4. Missiles have a high enough Pk rate for this to be effective. Naturally, against competent pilots, this is not going to be the case as they will try to evade. Technology as many BVR advocates are eager to point out does bring better missiles. Yet at the same time, they fail (or perhaps as you note don’t want to) to realize that it also brings better countermeasures.

        5. You must have perfect identification of friendly from enemies that is perhaps as much as 100 km away. I believe in 1994, there was a friendly fire incident where an American fighter shot down a Blackhawk because they could not tell it from a Hind. Given that a Blackhawk is dissimilar to a Hind, that does not bode well for future.

        6. The enemy does not have anti-radiation missiles. Fighters with big radars if detected are going to be targeted by ARMs, which means that the radar carrying fighters will want to turn off their radars, which in turn affects their ability to detect enemy fighters.

        If any of these don’t work out, then the whole BVR idea is not going to work out.

        • “1. Radar stealth would have to be effective against both fighter high frequency radar and wide band ground radar, which simply flies in the face of physics.”

          To be fair, you only need to be stealthy to X band radar, possibly L band too.

          “2. The BVR fighter’s radar cannot be detected by RWRs. Again, AESA even with it’s “frequency hopping” does not validate this since RWRs have a wide range.”

          Yeah, I achieved 0,5 to 18 GHz coverage on my fighter.

          “3. The BVR fighter must be able to fire without their IR signature being detected by IRST or other passive IR sensors.”

          Theoretically it is possible if fighter is far enough, in reality no BVR kill happened beyond maybe 20 nm.

          “Given that a Blackhawk is dissimilar to a Hind, that does not bode well for future.”

          Only reliable IFF is optical one, which is possible at short BVR distances thanks to the modern optical sensors.

          “If any of these don’t work out, then the whole BVR idea is not going to work out.”

          Actually, wrong. F-22, Rafale and Typhoon are entirely capable of completely passive BVR engagement – if enemy turns radar on, you can use his radar signature to identify him, and engage him at very long range (not just beyond visual range anymore but rather beyond radar range). If enemy does not emit, you can use IRST to identify and engage him at (comparably low) BVR distances.

      • “Actually, wrong. F-22, Rafale and Typhoon are entirely capable of completely passive BVR engagement – if enemy turns radar on, you can use his radar signature to identify him, and engage him at very long range (not just beyond visual range anymore but rather beyond radar range). If enemy does not emit, you can use IRST to identify and engage him at (comparably low) BVR distances.”

        Technically true.

        But what the advocates of BVR are saying is quite different. They’re saying that you can use radar to engage a target very far away through detection of active radar.

        I mean what’s going to happen is:

        First phase of combat:
        People use radar. Some fighters carry ARMs. Enemy is forced to turn off radar as are you.

        Second phase:
        Nobody uses radar. But moderate range BVR can occur with passive sensors only.

      • But in any event, the dogfight is likely to emerge as the main way to get kills, unless you’ve got pilots who don’t react to being fired at (that can happen).

        1. Historically surprise is the way to kill opponents
        2. Many nations in response to the economic climate and the rapidly rising costs of procurement have cut back on training for pilots (so more likely that they’ll have worse pilots now)

        Either way, it’s going to be mostly decided by the dogfight.

        Speaking of which, I wonder. What would happen with an “ultra cheap” gun only air superiority plane?

        – This would carry no missiles
        – Only passive sensors: IRST, RWR, missile warning
        – Countermeasures (jamming, flare, and chaff)
        – Only weapon present would be a gun

        I wonder if this could be built? For cheap? And spammed.

        • Countermeasures and sensors alone would be quite expensive, and pilot training isn’t cheap either so IR missiles aren’t too expensive. That being said, both sides running out of missiles is entirely possible.

      • “Countermeasures and sensors alone would be quite expensive, and pilot training isn’t cheap either so IR missiles aren’t too expensive.”

        In that case, there’s no point in building a “gun only” fighter. Missile fighter it is – lightweight as possible and with a gun.

        “That being said, both sides running out of missiles is entirely possible.”

        Considering that in many ways, ammunition requirements have been greatly underestimated, it would seem very likely. That and Pk has been vastly overestimated historically on missiles.

        To be honest, the unit costs of all of these new 5th generation and “4+” generation fighters are pretty staggering (save maybe the Gripen, but it’s gaining weight at a pretty alarming rate).

      • “In that case, there’s no point in building a “gun only” fighter. Missile fighter it is – lightweight as possible and with a gun.”

        Correct, though gun is an important system and most modern fighters, IMO, have a shortcoming with regard to number of gun bursts carried.

        “To be honest, the unit costs of all of these new 5th generation and “4+” generation fighters are pretty staggering (save maybe the Gripen, but it’s gaining weight at a pretty alarming rate).”

        That is the problem with multirole aircraft, if you take a look at Gripen NG it corrected many of original Gripen’s shortcomings, but is also larger, heavier and more expensive, in good part due to multirole requirements.

      • I read somewhere that the cost of a multirole fighter tends to be at least 3 times higher as the most expensive of the types it incorporates. So probably an air-superiority only Rafale would have cost about 30 million and a air-superiority only Gripen about 15.

      • “Correct, though gun is an important system and most modern fighters, IMO, have a shortcoming with regard to number of gun bursts carried.”

        Yeah that’s definitely an issue. Most fighters only have a couple of bursts. It’s ideology – most designers evidently expect that the missiles will get the most kills.

        “That is the problem with multirole aircraft, if you take a look at Gripen NG it corrected many of original Gripen’s shortcomings, but is also larger, heavier and more expensive, in good part due to multirole requirements.”

        True that.

        Question is, will the wing get bigger or the fuel tanks? If not, it’s a short legged and not so maneuverable fighter.

        I’ve heard that the Eurofighter has some issues as well. It may very well be that the Dassault Rafale is the best of the European fighters designed in this time period.

        “I read somewhere that the cost of a multirole fighter tends to be at least 3 times higher as the most expensive of the types it incorporates. So probably an air-superiority only Rafale would have cost about 30 million and a air-superiority only Gripen about 15.”

        Possibly.

        To be honest, if a multirole fighter is more than 1.5X as expensive as the single role, you should go with the single role. That’s not even considering that the single role will likely outperform the multirole at the intended role.

        “All fighters mentioned, except for F-18E, are also far more maneuverable than the F-35.”

        To be honest, I wonder how Navy aviation is going to end up in the future. There has never really been a “good” air superiority fighter in any navy recently. The F-14 was a bomber interceptor, the F-18 (and “super”) variants were never great at interceptors, nor was the F-4 predecessor. Although the F-35C for the US Navy has a larger wing, I suspect it will have issues still.

        I suppose the Dassault Rafale and the Su-30 would be considered the closest carrier based air superiority fighter.

      • “Yeah that’s definitely an issue. Most fighters only have a couple of bursts. It’s ideology – most designers evidently expect that the missiles will get the most kills.”

        What they also don’t realize is important of complementary capabilities – use a missile shot to force the enemy to evade and then exploit that by getting a gun kill. F-35 B and C carry gun only for ground attack.

        “Question is, will the wing get bigger or the fuel tanks? If not, it’s a short legged and not so maneuverable fighter.”

        Fuel capacity is increased by >40%, but wing area stayed the same. Some info suggests that weight may have gotten reduced below Gripen C’s 6.800 kg, or maybe increased to 7.100 kg. Latter is more likely, though reduction in turn rate won’t be as great as it could be expected, as wider body and refined aerodynamics will result in more body lift.

        “Although the F-35C for the US Navy has a larger wing, I suspect it will have issues still.”

        Such as operational g limit same as Vietnam-era fighters (7,5 g).

        “I suppose the Dassault Rafale and the Su-30 would be considered the closest carrier based air superiority fighter.”

        Agreed.

      • “What they also don’t realize is important of complementary capabilities – use a missile shot to force the enemy to evade and then exploit that by getting a gun kill. F-35 B and C carry gun only for ground attack.”

        I think this all goes back to the original designers intentions.

        The Dassault Rafale for example was built as a fighter that primarily did air superiority, but a few concessions for ground attack and “multi-role”. Close canard-delta configuration combined with leading edge, clearly intended for at sound barrier or supersonic maneuvering, and for a 2 engined fighter, a relatively small (compared to other 2 engined fighters) size/weight. Fuel fraction is 0.33, which is somewhat less than I’d like but, acceptable (I think some of the variants are 0.31). Gun is also potent, although as you’ve noted above, it needs ammo for more bursts.

        I mean, this is clearly designed as a fighter first that can also carry ground attack munitions. The gun could also be used for ground attack, but it needs more ammo again. In a way, it makes even less concessions for ground attack than arguably the YF-16 to F-16. I think that this is as close to a “good multi-role” fighter as you can realistically make. It is an acceptable air superiority fighter, can be used for ground attack, and a naval version is available.

        By contrast, I mean, looking at the F-35, this thing was meant to be a bomber from day one. It all goes back to the USAF’s priorities. They want a bomber first. If the accepted design had been an air superiority fighter, it would get the “YF-16 to F-16” treatment so to speak and become a pseudo-bomber (if that’s even a word). The USAF doesn’t want their main fighter to be an air superiority plane first like the Rafale, they want an “F/A” plane. Similar things could be said about the USN. They want a “stealthy” F/A-18 Super Hornet. I mean they’ve retired their electronic warfare planes, their “A” series of planes to focus mainly on the F/A-18, the naval F-35, and increasingly, on attack drones.

        I mean, let’s consider the following:

        1. It does not have a good fuel fraction. That’s huge because well, it’ll be reliant of refueling tankers and in the case of the navy variant, it limits the effectiveness of carriers who now have to operate that much closer to shore (where they’ll be more vulnerable). Supercruise is also doubtful for the F-35.

        2. As an air superiority fighter, it’s going to come down to hope your missiles hit as an F-35. If they don’t well, you’ve got a fighter that is not very aerodynamic, that does not have enough fuel for a sustained dogfight, and that is well, for a single engine fighter, big.

        I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that a lightweight version of the Rafale with more gun ammo and off-runway operation is more or less what the F-35 should have been.

        “Fuel capacity is increased by >40%, but wing area stayed the same. Some info suggests that weight may have gotten reduced below Gripen C’s 6.800 kg, or maybe increased to 7.100 kg. Latter is more likely, though reduction in turn rate won’t be as great as it could be expected, as wider body and refined aerodynamics will result in more body lift.”

        We’ll have to wait and see. They are adding a more potent engine and the wider body may yet offset the higher wing loading.

        “Such as operational g limit same as Vietnam-era fighters (7,5 g).”

        The enlarged wing reminds me of the F-16XL program. Are you familiar with it? This is a quote from Everest Riccioni:

        “A major reason for its lackluster performance was its very high structural weight fraction. High,
        because it was a modification of an exiting airframe designed to a different purpose. So with its
        excessive weight, and its reduced thrust-to-weight ratio, it was capable of very tight turns, but at
        horrendous, unprecedented energy loss rates, making it easy to defeat.”

        This does not bode well. Add it to the list of other F-35 issues like the fact that the current naval variant cannot land on a carrier.

        It is also a serious warning for people who advocate for an “FB-22”.

        • F-35 can’t supercruise, fullstop. Only way it can “supercruise” is to go full afterburner to maximum speed, and then go to dry power and “supercruise” for a limited distance until drag forces it back to subsonic speed. That way, F-16 can supercruise too.

          Rest, I agree with.

      • Somewhat OT but this is the US Navy’s budget estimates:

        Not sure how realistic it is though (the CBO estimates that this is a serious lowball of real costs). And it doesn’t show the fighter acquisitions, so I’m not sure what the plan is.

      • “F-35 can’t supercruise, fullstop. Only way it can “supercruise” is to go full afterburner to maximum speed, and then go to dry power and “supercruise” for a limited distance until drag forces it back to subsonic speed. That way, F-16 can supercruise too.”

        It’s why I said it was “doubtful”.

        “Supercruise is also doubtful for the F-35.”

        Check this out:
        http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/2012/November%202012/1112fighter.aspx

        “The F-35, while not technically a “supercruising” aircraft, can maintain Mach 1.2 for a dash of 150 miles without using fuel-gulping afterburners.”

        Note that I doubt the factual accuracy though of the article – AFM is going to be pro F-35.

  2. Hello,
    Picard, I guess your statement “On the other hand, Rafale and F-22 are the only fighters which can use opponent’s emissions to attack him, though this capability does not matter much if enemy is not emitting radio signals (radar, IFF or datalinks).” is wrong, as at least the Typhoon can do this too.
    http://www.flightglobal.com/FlightPDFArchive/1992/1992%20-%200710.PDF
    http://www.elt-roma.com/index.php/en/technical-solution-2

    And: The Luftwaffe doesn´t fly Phantoms anymore, The so called “Phantom Phlyout” was on 29.06.2013 with JG 71 in Wittmund. I was there, too.

  3. Interesting, maybe it should go something like this?

    First generation:
    First jet fighters, from end of WWII to Korea. Mostly armed with guns, although some rockets as well.

    Second generation:
    Wings get more swept back as supersonic flight becomes more and more common. Mach 2 becomes more common. Swept back wings though pay a penalty. They are less maneuverable, required really long runways, and made these sacrifices under the misguided assumption that future fights would be missile centric. There is also rapid weight gain and exploding unit costs, which leads to smaller numbers being bought. Also notable is the first delta wing fighters.

    The “fighters” of this generation are really either bombers or bomber interceptors. They would lose a dogfight to first generation fighters. Radar and many sophisticated electronics began to be introduced in a large scale during this generation.

    Third generation:
    Around this time period, the introduction of variable swept wing fighters came about in an attempt to solve the issue of swept back wings that paid the price of poor maneuverability at low speeds and long runways, but also optimized for supersonic Mach 2+ speed. They paid for this though in weight and complexity.

    Otherwise, largely a continuation of 2nd generation trends. The first BVR missiles began to enter service around this time. Fighters are not really interceptors or bombers and in a dogfight, would lose to 1st generation fighters. Weight, complexity, and thus cost increases continued, leading to even fewer aircraft being bought. Electronics too continued to dominate the cost of these fighters.

    Some fighters made the misguided decision to delete their guns!

    Fourth generation;
    Wing sweep began to compromise (save in delta wings) between a very sharply swept back wing (good for high speeds) and less wing sweep. Leading edge extensions started to make an entrance. Later on, canards also began to gain widespread adoption. For the first time, there is recognition that maneuverability is important and fighters are designed around this. It’s a recognition that dogfights too have some relevance. Equally interesting, passive sensors are becoming more potent.

    Again, we see large complex fighters, although by this point the weight is beginning to level off. Some fighters are on the order of 45,000 kg max takeoff weight! Unit costs though continue to rise due to complexity to the point where even very wealthy nations could only buy hundreds.

    Supercruise is also discussed for the first time (previously fighters could only briefly go supersonic from afterburners) due to the actions of the “Fighter Mafia” in the US and independently theorized by researchers in the USSR (which dissolved).

    There are some light weight fighters introduced at this time to help give the force presence needed. For the first time, there’s a recognition that flight to maintenance ratio matters in war and there’s an effort to reduce it. I think one thing that may have prevented this was that it was assumed in the past that there would be a nuclear war so well, once aircraft took off, that was it.

    Once more, some fighters tried to delete their guns. They usually had to be added back later.

    Fifth generation:
    Unit costs and complexity are now increasing to the point where well, the development takes decades, resulting in even fewer purchases. These planes become increasingly under public scrutiny due to their rapidly rising costs.

    Stealth technology against high frequency fighter radars begins to emerge, but pays a substantial cost in unit costs, complexity, maintenance to flight requirements, and in some cases, poisons their own pilots/maintenance staff.

    Again, there is a discussion about the need for guns. Do you see a trend here?

    Other thoughts:
    I omitted this, but along the way, countermeasures have gotten progressively more sophisticated as have electronics due to the advances in computer technology.

    Thrust to weight ratios though have been going up in generations 4 and 5, a positive development.

    • I’d rather divide fighters into “families”, based on aerodynamics etc.

      This is how an aerodynamic division would go:
      F-15 family: F-15, F-22
      Su-27 family: Su-27, Su-30, Su-35, PAK FA
      F-16 family: F-16, Gripen, Rafale
      Mirage family: Mirage I, Mirage II, Mirage III, Mirage IV
      F-105 family: F-105, MiG-23, Mitage F1, Mirage G

      • Perhaps.

        It’d be interesting though to split each family up and identify which decisions were made and why for each family though.

  4. Gripen E is not so much larger than previous version. The body is wider just behind the air inlets (the drag is lower there because the engine sucks lots of air). The new landing gear uses less room inside leaving more room for fuel tanks but also for a pair more pylons. The wing tanks is somewhat redesigned to better utilize the inside of wing. New carbon fibres technology reduces weight for carbon fibre parts by 10% so the empty weight will be close Gripen C. The weight may differ between rebuilt Gripen Cs and new Gripen E because the rebuilt planes will get new body/landing gears but lots of old parts from Gripen Cs is reused.

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