Defense Media Network

6th Generation Combat Aircraft

When the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor entered service in December 2005, it was hailed as the world’s first fifth-generation military aircraft. Production of the F-22 was terminated in 2011 with only 187 of the originally planned 750 operational aircraft built.

Just as the F-22 line was being shut down, deliveries of the first production models of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) began. Also classified as a Gen-5 aircraft, the F-35 is planned to replace multiple aircraft in three U.S. services – the F-35A conventional takeoff/landing variant for the Air Force, the F-35B STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) aircraft for the Marine Corps, and the F-35C carrier-capable version for the Navy.

The F-35 also is unique in advanced military aircraft history due to eight international partners who are providing funding, technology, and production assistance. And, unlike the F-22, the F-35 will be the first stealth aircraft offered for international sale – first to the program partners, then to select U.S. allies, including Israel and Japan.

F-22 Raptor

An F-22 Raptor from the 525th Fighter Squadron takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Sept. 21, 2011. Even as the United States works to solve problems with its Gen-5 aircraft, efforts are underway to develop a Gen-6 fighter. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Gross

While both Russia and China have claimed to be building Gen-5 fighters, no other nation has one in service, and the validity of the Russian and Chinese claims remains in question.

At the same time, the two U.S. aircraft have had major problems.

The entire F-22 fleet was grounded for nearly five months in 2011 due to perceived problems with the cockpit life-support system. The Raptor began returning to duty in late September.

The F-35, meanwhile, has been plagued with program delays, cost overruns, and questions about its operational capabilities. The Marine Corps F-35B, in particular, has come under considerable fire and been threatened with cancellation if major program fixes are not implemented. By the end of 2011, both the JSF Program Office and the Marine Corps were assuring Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) that those problems had been addressed and the STOVL variant was back on schedule.

At the same time, some of the international partners, faced with growing economic problems and forced budget cuts, were raising questions about the number of international sales the F-35 might achieve. The United Kingdom, in particular, created major concerns when the Ministry of Defense canceled the bulk of its planned buy of 150 F-35Bs, replacing them with a smaller number of F-35Cs. [Editor’s note: The UK has apparently reversed its decision recently, and reaffirmed a buy of F-35Bs.]

Even as the United States continues to work out problems with its two “world’s only” Gen-5 aircraft and Russia and China continue to talk about – but have yet to truly demonstrate – their own efforts, two questions remain: What truly defines an aircraft as Gen-5 and what, then, would define future military aircraft – whether fighters, bombers, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – as Gen-6?

The answer to the first varies somewhat, in part because a primary element when the F-22 was introduced was stealth, which the United States had successfully demonstrated in two previous aircraft – the F-117 Nighthawk “fighter” (more realistically, a ground attack aircraft) and the B-2 Spirit bomber, both classified as Gen-4. The importance of stealth became a question because the F-35 was said to lack all-aspect stealth.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...