Stealth fighters are exceedingly expensive and complicated to design, manufacture and operate. Furthermore, their capabilities are wasted against all but the most capable opponents. Therefore, new fourth-generation fighters continue to enter service such as the Russian Su-35, the French Rafale, the English Typhoon and the American FA-18E/F Super Hornet. Collectively termed 4.5 generation aircraft, these typically feature digital avionics designed to network with friendly forces, powerful new low-observable, high-resolution AESA air-and-ground search radars, and long-range infrared sensors.
Some of these aircraft boast airframe-hugging conformal fuel tanks to perform longer-range missions under less drag, and exhibit smaller radar cross-sections of one to three meters, to reduce the range at which they can be detected and fired upon—even if they are not true stealth aircraft.
Air-to-air weapons, meanwhile, continue to grow deadlier. At short ranges, fighter pilots can now target enemy fighters simply by looking at them through a helmet-mounted sight, and launching heat-seeking R-73 or AIM-9X missiles that can hit targets within a 180-degree arc of the nose. These weapons are estimated to have kill probabilities of 70–80 percent, threatening to make the dogfights of the future very brief indeed. However, air battles will now likely commence well beyond visual range, with the introduction of long-range missiles such as the Meteor, the R-77 and the AIM-120D.
Jet fighters have grown more complex, capable and mind-bogglingly expensive with each new generation. While theorists anticipate a pilotless sixth generation of jet fighters, current fourth and fifth-generation fighters will continue to prowl the skies for many decades to come.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Geelong, AUSTRALIA – An F-35 Lightning II stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., departs the runway during the Australian International Airshow and Aerospace & Defence Exposition (AVALON) March 4. AVALON 2017 is an ideal forum to showcase U.S. defense aircraft and equipment, particularly the latest in fifth generation capabilities such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 and it is the largest, most comprehensive event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, attracting aviation and aerospace professions, key defense personnel, aviation enthusiasts and the general public. The U.S. participates in AVALON and other similar events to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to regional security and stability. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. John Gordinier)