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Fighter Aircraft Generations

The postwar period of development of aircraft production was marked by a scientific and technical revolution - the beginning era of jet aircraft. In the 1930s it became clear that ordinary planes with piston engines and propellers had been developed almost completely, and that there was not much room for further improvement. Since WWII each successive generation of fighters demonstrated increased speed and altitude compared to its predecessor, to provide a machine better adapted than that of any competitor to the needs of all potential customers.

Russian analysts divine five [or six] generations of post-World War II fighter aircraft

  • 0 - 1945-1955 - The "Zeroeth" generation fighter aircraft were the first military aircraft using jet engines. A few were developed during the closing days of World War II but saw very limited combat operations. These include World War II era fighters such as the Me 262, and early post-War aircraft such as the F-80 and F-84.
  • 1 - 1945-1955 - First generation fighter aircraft were the first military aircraft using jet engines. A few were developed during the closing days of World War II but saw very limited combat operations. The first generation can be split into two broad groups: World War II era fighters such as the Me 262 and mature first generation fighters such as the F-86 used in the Korean War. Example of first generation jet fighters are the F-84, F-86 and F-100. Mikoyan's design office worked on the twin-engined fighter MiG-9. Yakovlev's design office brought out the single-engined fighter Yak-15 in October 1945; it was already on the airfield for preliminary tests and for taxiing. The MiG-9 and Yak-15 promised to be lighter, easier to fly, to have better flying characteristics and be more reliable than the German planes.
  • 2 - 1955-1960 - Second Generation fighter aircraft exhibit more advanced avionics, engines, and used the first guided air-to-air missiles. The period from 1950 until 1955 is marked by a dearth of significant interceptor prototypes except for the 1953 appearance of the MiG-17. Second-generation aircraft-including the MIG-15 to MIG-19 and U.S. century series fighters - were designed during the 1940s and 1950s. Although they are still found in fighter inventories worldwide, older planes probably have limited combat potential when confronting more modern fighters, since they may suffer from several disadvantages. For example, they may carry less sophisticated munitions and have less capable sensors. The early MiG- and Su-series aircraft have been improved in their air-to-air role. The MiG-23 Flogger B was a second generation fighter which had a secondary ground attack capability greater than the Fishbed or Fitter.
  • 3 - 1960-1970 - Third Generation fighter aircraft exhibit more advanced avionics, engines, and weapons. The changes in the fighter combat conception, new air-to-air guided missiles and the results from first and second generation fighter operations gave rise to the third generation such as the the MiG-21 and MiG-23. Third-generation aircraft may provide somewhat more military capability, especially if they have gone through extensive modifications since they were built. Designed during the 1960s through 1970s, this generation includes the MIG-27 series designed by former Soviet Union's Mikoyan Design Bureau. The third generation fighter-bombers and tactical bombers included the Su-24 and their derivatives, the F-4s and A-7s built by the United States; and the European designed Mirage 3, Mirage 5, Tornado, and F-l.
  • 4 - 1970-1990 - Fourth generation continued the trend towards multi-role fighters equipped with increasingly sophisticated avionics and weapon systems. These fighters also began emphasizing maneuverability rather than speed to succeed in air-to-air combat. Fourth-generation fighters, designed during the 1960s and 1970s, include the US-designed F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18; the Soviet-built SU-27 and MIG-29; and the European Mirage 2000. Fourth generation aircraft usually have more sophisticated avionics than their predecessors, more powerful engines, and are able to operate more capable missiles.
  • 5 - 1990-2010 - Fifth generation fighters use advanced integrated avionics systems to provide the pilot with a complete battlespace awareness, and use of low observable "stealth" technology. The F-22 and F-35 were the first fifth generation fighters, with Russia following with the Mikoyan Gurevich MFI prototype and the Sukhoi PAK-FA, and China with the J-20.

Making the situation even more confusing, the Chinese have their own particular order of ranking. The Chinese call the Russian's 5th generation fighter a 4th generation machine.

One of the main differences of the 4th generation from the 3rd is high maneuverability characteristics. Their achievement is ensured by the use of longitudinal static instability, which, in turn, led to the need to replace the classical differential control system of a 3rd generation aircraft with an electro-distance control system, which appeared due to the development of digital computer technologies and ensured the necessary speed and accuracy.

The use of turbojet engines of a new generation provided more thrust. Russian fighters of the 4th generation began to install engines with a controlled thrust vector. A characteristic feature of the fourth-generation fighter aircraft was also the integral fuselage configuration, which includes a hybrid wing that implements the principles of "vortex aerodynamics" and represents swells of large sweep and trapezoidal planes. This provided access to angles of attack of more than 30 and high rates of limiting thrust bends.

Upgrades to 4th generation fighter aircraft became not only multi-purpose, but also multi-functional. This was due to their equipping with radars with an active phased array antenna (AFAR), hanging optical-electronic systems of aiming, reconnaissance and electronic warfare, helmet-mounted targeting systems and night vision goggles. All this allowed combat use of a wide range of aircraft destruction weapons in simple and difficult weather conditions day and night, both for air and ground targets.

The term "4.5 generation" is also sometimes seen [the Chinese call them 3.5 generation]. These are more recent fourth generation fighters, retaining the basic characteristics of fourth generation planes but with enhanced capabilities provided by more advanced technologies that might be seen in fifth generation fighters. Good examples are the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Dassault Rafale. All make use of advanced avionics to improve mission capability and limited stealth characteristics to reduce visibility when compared to older fourth generation aircraft.

Stealth characteristics markedly enhance the capability for survivable attack of defended targets. And that remains true, even though evolving modern air defenses available on the international arms markets have increasing capability against currently deployed levels of stealth. Hence, to continue to operate effectively in the face of these defenses, stealth has to be supplemented with other survivability features. Nonetheless, stealth aircraft operate at much lower levels of support than conventional aircraft and even small numbers of stealth aircraft can greatly leverage the capabilities of the remainder of the bomber force and of the tactical fighter forces.

Europe and Japan are behind in applied stealth technology as evidenced by U.S. aircraft programs such as the F-22, B-2, and F-117A. Most of the applied foreign low-observable work involves basic shaping, material coating techniques, and signature testing requirements. Europe has been led by France, Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom in various types and levels of low-observable applications. Applications on fighter aircraft have generally been at fundamental applied levels, primarily using absorbent coatings, limited structural shaping, and absorbent structure. Applications seem to be limited to the areas with highest signature return rather than application to an entire airframe. European firms are also working on stealth technology applications to cruise missiles and unmanned aerodynamic vehicles.

The rapid growth of a globalized economy has deepened the degree of international cooperation and expanded the variety of methods of cooperation in the international arms production industry to such an extent that a globalization trend has also emerged in this field. The globalization of the national defense industry refers to the change from the traditional preference for autarky to that of a globally oriented market in terms of research, production, management, and sales. At present, there are mainly three ways in which globalization exhibits itself. The first is through the purchasing of weapons from other countries and taking part in the production of these weapons (including granting of special permits, joint cooperation and development ventures, and compensation trade). An example is the joint production of F-16 fighter jets by the United States, Holland, Denmark and Norway. The second method is through military cooperation packages covering weapons trade, production and maintenance, and joint military exercises between different countries, e.g. the signing of the ten-year military cooperation agreement package between India and Russia in 1999. The final means is through cross- border joint ventures, and joint research and development projects between nations (including international group companies, international integration and transnational amalgamation). The four-nation joint venture for the production of "Eurofighter-2000" by Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain is an example.

Distinguished US Air Force historian Richard Hallion suggested in 1980 that by that time there had been six generations of jet fighter aircraft:

  1. High subsonic (1943-50): Me 262, Meteor, P-80, Vampire, Yak-15, MiG-9, Saab J-21, F-84 straightwing, F9F straightwing, Ouragan, Venom. Little aerodynamic difference from the last generation of propeller-driven fighters. First- and second-generation turbojets; wood, fabric, and all-metal construction; optical gunsights; straight wing and straight tail. Mechanical control systems. Primitive ejection seats. Mach 0.75-0.85.
  2. Transonic (1947-55): F-86, F-84 sweptwing, F9F sweptwing, MiG-15/17, Hunter, Mystre TV. Second-generation turbojets; radar gunsights; swept wings; generally have adjustable horizontal stabilizers. Early hydromechanical flight control systems. Mach 0.90-1.05.
  3. Early supersonic (1953-60): MiG-19, F-100, F-8. Swept wings, all-moving tails, radar gunsights, introduction of air-to-air missile armament. Third-generation turbojet engines. Early stability augmentation technology. Generally adaptable for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Mach 1.3.
  4. Supersonic (limited purpose) (1955-70): F-104, early model MiG-21, EE (BAC) Lightning, early model Mirage III. Supersonic aerodynamics, especially area ruling; fourth-generation turbojets; radar for search and fire control. Overreliance on -air-to-air missiles based on unrealistic expectations. Mach 2.0.
  5. Supersonic (multirole) (1958-80): F-105, F-4, late-model MiG-21, late-model Mirage III, F-5, F-111, Mirage V, Su-24, MiG-23/27, Jaguar, Mirage Fl, Kfir. Refined supersonic aerodynamic design, including canards and variable geometry wings; fourth- and fifth-generation engines; stability augmentation; mixed-gun air-to-air missile (AAM) armament; terrain-following radar for low-level high-speed flight; radar search and fire control; infrared sensors; heads up displays (HUD); laser ranging and targeting; wide range of air-to-surface missiles, bombs, and rockets, including precision-guided munitions. Mach 1.4-2.5.
  6. Supersonic multirole, high efficiency (1974-present): F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, Mirage 2000, Tornado, MiG-29, Su-27. Combined the characteristics of the fifth-generation fighters with advances in propulsion, radar (multiple target track-while-scan, look-down/shoot-down), sensor, and electronic flight control technology to generate highly maneuverable, highly agile aircraft that can be swing-roled for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Fifth- or sixth-generation gas-turbine engines; engine thrust-to-weight ratios in excess of one; ability to attain supersonic speeds without afterburning; sustained high-G flight, and controllability below 70 knots at angles of attack exceeding 70 degrees. High degree of energy efficiency. Mix of cannonand missile armament, coupled with diverse air-to-ground weaponry. Mach 1.8-2.5.




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