The best fighters are a judicious combination of low observable characteristics (stealth), armament capability, speed, range, manoeuvrability and technological advancement
Fighter planes are the sharp edge of air power. And some of the best brains in the business, backed by big budgets, are hard at work to endow their own aircraft with performance that will brook no rival. There’s a bewildering array of lethal machines on offer—at a price. The F-35 Lighting II, for instance, is reportedly the most expensive weapon system in history. Although modern fighter aircraft are incredibly powerful and devastating, no single quality defines the “ultimate” fighter. One desirable feature often militates against another and the best fighters are a judicious combination of low observable characteristics (stealth), armament capability, speed, range, manoeuvrability and technological advancement. Manufacturers regularly issue claims and counterclaims to affirm that theirs is the world’s best fighter. But, strangely enough, their assertions remain unproven because the main contenders have never been pitted against each other in live combat.
The MMRCA Shootout
Most of today’s great fighters were part of the prestigious Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition for 126 aircraft to equip the Indian Air Force (IAF). The contest began with six fighter types: Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, Mikoyan MiG-35 and Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
On January 31, 2012, it was announced that Rafale, a twinengine, delta-wing, agile, multi-role aircraft, designed and built by the Dassault Aviation of France, had won the contest. However, contract negotiations have dragged on for over two years and it appears that some more chapters in the long-running saga remain to be written.
All contenders in the MMRCA competition are extremely capable machines; but they belong only to the so-called fourthgeneration of fighter aircraft. Fifth-generation aircraft are now beginning to appear on the scene. This is a classification used mainly in the United States to describe the most advanced fighters under development. However, the precise qualities that define fifth-generation fighters are rather vague and controversial. They include all-aspect stealth even when armed, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), high-performance airframes and engines, high manoeuvrability, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems that can network with other elements in the theatre for enhanced situational awareness. The F-22 Raptor is currently the only combat-worthy fifth-generation fighter, but the F-35 Lightning II is likely to join it next year.
Low observable technology or stealth is what often generates the greatest excitement. Being practically invisible to the enemy’s electronic sensors is top-of-the-list for most designers. It involves a complex array of engineering techniques and many performance trade-offs to achieve. And it creates problems of its own. Constant maintenance and huge costs are necessary to keep stealthy fighters operating at their full potential. That is why some air forces which are restricted by shrinking budgets have opted to stick with 4.5 generation fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale, at least in the interim. These aircraft have performance levels comparable with fifth-generation fighters, minus stealth and other exotic and expensive features.
United States Unstoppable?
Since World War II, the US has dominated the world in military technology by a wide margin and its latest fighter aircraft only prove the point. The world’s first fifth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, became operational in 2005. It is a multi-role air superiority fighter, equipped with the most advanced weapons. Its extreme stealth characteristics render it almost invisible to conventional radars. A twin-jet plane, highly manoeuvrable even at supersonic speeds, it can supercruise (i.e. fly supersonic without the use of fuel-guzzling afterburners) at 1.5 Mach. Claimed to be currently the best fighter in the world, it is also the most expensive in history and extremely difficult to maintain. In all, the programme has supplied 187 operational F-22s to the United States Air Force (USAF) with the final aircraft being completed in December 2011.
Another upcoming fifth-generation plane is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. It is a multi role aircraft with stealth capability, powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine. It is designed to be America’s leading strike aircraft for at least a quarter of a century, equipping the USAF, US Navy and US Marine Corps, besides several foreign military forces. The F-35 has three models: F-35A conventional take-off and landing variant, F-35B short take-off and verticallanding variant and F-35C carrier-based variant.
Like several major fighter programmes the F-35 has experienced numerous delays and cost overruns. The average cost per plane zoomed from $69 million in 2001 (when the programme was launched) to “under $100 million” currently, according to Lockheed Martin executives. However, critics believe that the unit cost may approach $160 million if development costs are added. One possible reason for the huge increase was the decision to make three rather different versions from a single base design. Although it’s too late to change track, some analysts believe it might have been cheaper for each service to have built its own aircraft tailored to its specialised requirements. Quite early in the programme, the F-35’s classification was downgraded from “very low observable” to “low observable”, in order to prevent it becoming more expensive. The initial operational capability (IOC) of the F-35B is expected by December 2015, the F-35A by December 2016, and the F-35C by February 2019. The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 F-35s over the next 25 years or so and together with projected foreign sales the total could soar above 3,000 aircraft.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian aerospace industry is yet to regain the commanding heights it once occupied. Most of its top fighters are mere improvements of older variants.
The Mikoyan MiG-35, for instance, is an advanced version of the MiG-29M/M2 and is claimed to be a 4++ generation multirole fighter, with some fifth-generation qualities. Extensive use of composites in the airframe has reduced the radar cross section (RCS), thus enhancing its survivability. It is powered by two RD-33MKB thrust vectoring control engines that provide super-manoeuvrability and improve combat performance. An increase in the internal and external fuel capacity has raised the aircraft’s weight, making it a medium fighter aircraft rather than a light one. The MiG-35 has largely succeeded in fixing the serious flaws of the MiG-29 like limited range, engines that produce tell-tale smoke and lack of true multi-role capability. Its first flight was in 2007 and ten aircraft are currently undergoing extensive field trials. The Russian Air Force plans to induct 37 MiG-35 fighters around 2016.
Then there is the Sukhoi Su-35S twin-engine multi-role fighter, a radically modified version of the Su-27. This too is classified as a 4++ generation aircraft with many features of the fifth-generation. It aims to bridge the gap between the Su-30MK and the true fifth generation Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA, maturing many of the technologies necessary for the T-50. Radar-absorbent material has been extensively employed to reduce the frontal RCS to about half. Titanium alloys have also been used in the airframe. Powered by twin NPO Saturn 117S (AL-41F1A) turbofans, the Su-35S has supercruise capability, high agility in combat and enormous range and payload. The Russian Defence Ministry is planning to buy about 90 Su-35S aircraft eventually and they will gradually form the core of Russia’s fighter fleet.
The Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA (which stands for Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) is a stealthy fifth-generation twin-engine multi-role fighter and is currently under development. It has internal weapon bays, thrust-vectoring engines and supercruise capability. It is planned for induction in the Russian Air Force by 2016. However, its stealth characteristics are unlikely to match those of the F-35 Lightning II.
The T-50 is also the basis of the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF). The Sukhoi/Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) FGFA design features about 43 improvements over the T-50, including stealth, supercruise, advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics. The IAF plans to buy 144 FGFAs, commencing around 2022.
China Plays Catch-Up
Until now heavily dependent on Russian imports, China is a late entrant to the top fighter club. However, Chinese engineers have demonstrated a rare skill in churning out copycat versions of advanced aircraft. The country probably has the world’s largest defence R&D budget outside the US and its scientists are experimenting with advanced technologies such as stealth, internal weapon carriage and powerful jet engines in order to develop their own designs. The latest Chinese attempts to ramp up its fighters to fifth-generation standard are the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31. The J-20 made its first flight in January 2011 and its entry into service is planned for 2018-20. It is a multi-role stealth fighter, manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. The Chinese hope it will be on par with the American F-22 and F-35 fighters and the Russian PAK FA.
It has a canard delta configuration with blended fuselage and low RCS. The J-20 prototype is powered by two Russian Saturn 117S engines while the production version is intended to be powered by WS-10G thrust vectoring turbofan engines designed and manufactured by Shenyang Liming Aircraft Engine Company. However, mirroring India’s struggles with the ill-starred GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri engine, the Chinese are yet to taste success in producing a halfway decent modern turbofan. Advanced radars are another problem area.
The second possibly fifth-generation Chinese fighter, the Shenyang J-31, made its maiden flight in October 2012. However, despite these two new models and perhaps others under wraps, the US predicts that it will possess 20 times more “advanced stealth fighters” than the Chinese by 2020.
The Best of the Rest
The Eurofighter Typhoon, an advanced multi-role fighter, is currently one of the best in the world. It was also a frontrunner in India’s MMRCA competition. But with the last Typhoon due to roll out in 2017 and no new models under development it appears that the continent is falling behind in the high-stakes fifth-generation fighter race. Even as Russian and Chinese manufacturers are keen to muscle into the market there are fears that the European fighter industry could collapse as early as 2020. Some experts, however, believe that Europe is making a conscious decision to develop unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) like the Dassault nEUROn—Europe’s first stealthy combat drone—and the British BAE Systems Taranis, rather than manned fighters.
For its part, India’s aerospace industry is cautiously optimistic, now that the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) project is close to culmination following 28 years in development. After experiencing massive delays and cost overruns, Tejas is slated to achieve final operational clearance (FOC) by the end of the year. About 200 LCA will be inducted by the IAF while the Indian Navy will acquire 40 naval variants.
HAL is gaining further experience in advanced fighter technology thanks to its work on the FGFA and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI—a two-seat, long-range multi-role fighter that it assembles under licence for the IAF. Therefore, it is planning an even more ambitious-design—the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This is a fifth-generation multi-role fighter, intended to replace the SEPECAT Jaguar and Dassault Mirage 2000. According to the IAF’s Air Staff Requirements (ASR) of 2010, the AMCA will be in the 25-tonne class. It will have a very small RCS and will feature serpentine air intakes, internal weapons carriage, and the use of composites and other materials. It may be powered by twin Kaveri engines, with thrust vectoring, with the possibility of supercruise capability. The plan is to freeze the configuration by 2018 and achieve the first flight in 2020.
But the hunt for the top fighter is getting smaller. According to industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, there may be just five military combat aircraft in production in 2020 (excluding Russian and Chinese models): the Lockheed Martin F-35, Dassault’s Rafale, HAL’s Tejas LCA, Korea Aerospace Industries’ TA-50 Golden Eagle and Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen. This is a striking reduction from the 14 combat aircraft being produced in 1990. It begs the question—will the ultimate fighter be a UCAV?