Magazine article National Defense

Fifth-Generation Fighters Will Determine Air Dominance in Future Conflicts

Magazine article National Defense

Fifth-Generation Fighters Will Determine Air Dominance in Future Conflicts

Article excerpt

In August 2013, South Korea chose Boeing's F-15SE as its next-generation fighter aircraft over Lockheed Martin's F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Months later, the South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration reversed course in favor of buying fewer of the more capable F-35.

John Pike, Globalsecurity.org think tank director, said the episode is the best endorsement of the joint strike fighter's flfth-generation technologies, regardless of its problematic development and relatively high cost.

"I think the sovereign answer on the F-35 is South Korea," Pike told National Defense. "They had a flyoff between the F-35 and the F-15 and they chose the F-15. That was a really interesting competition because it was apples to apples. The F-35 was four times more expensive. Initially the price difference drove them to choose the cheaper aircraft. Then a little down the road, they thought better of it and reversed the decision, cost be damned."

South Korea has a vested interest in keeping up with the latest in fighter technology and capabilities. It sits in the middle of a region that is increasingly dominated by an expansionist China, which is developing its own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20. That aircraft, which mimics the F-35 in its stealth and sensor technologies, is scheduled to become combat ready at the same time as its U.S.-developed counterpart.

South Korea's decision to purchase the more expensive F-35 was likely a long-game wager that it would have to one day counter the Chinese air force, Pike said.

"In another five years, there will be two types of aircraft in Asia: stealth fighters, meaning fifth-generation fighters, and targets," he said. "There's no reason to buy a bunch of F-1 5s when all you're doing is providing Red China with target practice."

Fifth-generation fighters bring more to the table than simply stealth. In future conflicts, they will charge ahead and determine which force will achieve air dominance, Pike said. Older fighters, which will still be in US. and other nations' fleets for decades, will then come in and perform "clean-up" missions against enemy positions and air-defense installations, he added. They also will carry sophisticated electronic-attack weaponry designed to counter enemy radar and air defenses in the sort of non-permissive environments that U.S. aircraft have not had to contend in the wars of the past decade.

The F-35 and F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005, incorporate an electronics suite and information-gathering technologies that are far in advance of current capabilities.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, speaking at the delivery of Australia's first two F-35s, praised the joint strike fighter's computing power.

The F-35 encompasses "millions of lines of code, an incredibly integrated design that brings together stealth, a number of characteristics, very advanced sensors, advanced radars, advanced [infrared] sensors, incredibly capable electronic warfare capability, integration of weapons and integration across the force of multiple aircraft and multiple sensors to work together as a team," he said.

"You're talking about something that no one has ever done before, which will put us all a decade or more ahead of anybody else out there. And [it will] keep us ahead for some time to come as we continue to upgrade the F-35," he added.

Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of U.S. Air Combat Command, said viewing stealth as the defining characteristic of fifth-generation aircraft is shortsighted.

"When you talk about fifth-generation ... stealth is one of the characteristics of it," Hostage said in July at an Air Force Association meeting in Arlington, Virginia. "I think the most amazing difference between fourth- and fifth-gen is the fusion capability, the ability to take sensors and make the pilot no longer the fusion device. …

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