What makes 5th-generation fighter jets apart from others

  • The US became the first country to field a 5th-generation fighter when the F-22 Raptor first flew in 2005.
  • Since then, China and Russia have introduced their own 5th-generation jets, and the US has fielded another one, the F-35.
  • Here’s what sets this latest generation of fighters from the generations before them.

In 2005, the United States became the first nation on earth to field an operational 5th-generation fighter in the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

When you look at the F-22 compared to its 4th-generation predecessors, the aircraft clearly stands out … but what exactly made it the first of a new generation, rather than a more advanced approach to the existing generation of fighters?

Generational designations often (or at least used to) come from within the aviation community itself. Each generation comes with a somewhat subjective list of capabilities that may have existed in some particular aircraft before, but become requirements across the board for fighters of the next generation.

f 15 f 22 raptor RAF Lakenheath
An F-15(left) and an F-22 of USAF

Fighter generations are fairly subjective, so here’s how the Air Force broke down what new capabilities prompted a new generational designation:

 The F-15EX fighter jet during its first flight, February 2, 2021.
  • 1st Generation: Jet propulsion
  • 2nd Generation: Swept wings, range-finding radar, and infrared-guided missiles
  • 3rd Generation: Supersonic flight, pulse radar, and missiles that can engage opponents from beyond visual range
  • 4th Generation and beyond: High levels of agility, some degree of sensor fusion, pulse-doppler radar, reduced radar signature, fly-by-wire, look down/shoot down missiles, and more.

Because new 4th generation fighters are still being produced, it is perhaps the muddiest of all fighter generations. As a result, 4th-generation fighters are often further broken down into sub-generations such as 4, 4+, and 4++. These more advanced 4th-generation platforms often boast some 5th-generation capabilities, but not all.

In the case of the first 5th-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, the most important thing differentiating it from its 4th-generation counterparts was how stealth was an intrinsic part of the aircraft’s design.

Rather than first designing a fighter for aerodynamics and performance and then seeking ways to reduce radar signature, F-22 development prioritized stealth from day one.

Of course, that wasn’t all that made the F-22 special, and although it was, in fact, the first actual stealth fighter on the planet, it also possessed several other essential 5th-generation attributes.

The F-22 came with highly integrated computer systems capable of communicating with other networked assets. It is a high-performance airframe capable of serving in a multi-role capacity. As a result, it maintains a higher degree of situational awareness than can be found in older platforms.

The F-22 also brought with it super-cruising capabilities — which means being able to sustain supersonic speeds without the use of its afterburner. For an intercept fighter like the F-22, the ability to super-cruise means being able to close with enemy aircraft at extremely high speeds while still saving enough fuel for the fight once they arrive.

Conversely, the Air Force’s workhorse 4th-generation multi-role fighter, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, will burn through all the fuel it has onboard within a matter of minutes with its afterburner ignited.

As a result, for some time, super-cruise capabilities were considered a part of what makes a 5th generation fighter a part of the 5th generation… That is until no other 5th generation fighter made it into the skies with that capability. Today, only the F-22 offers super-cruise capabilities within its generation, and as such, it’s become a valuable trait, but not a part of the generational distinction.

F-35 5th generation fighter aircraft of USAF

Today, there are four operational 5th-generation fighter platforms in the world: America’s F-22 and F-35, China’s J-20, and Russia’s Su-57, flying alongside more than 25 different 4th-generation platforms.

Here’s a rundown of what, exactly, sets these four highly capable fighters apart from even the most modern and advanced 4th generation platforms like the F-15EX.

  • Stealth
  • A high degree of maneuverability
  • Advanced avionics systems
  • Multi-role capabilities
  • Network or data fusion capabilities

While some still debate the finer points of what’s required of a 5th-generation fighter, these traits are commonly accepted. Some of these capabilities were present on 4th-generation aircraft, but each must be present in a 5th-generation platform. This raises the question then … what will be the criteria for a 6th-generation fighter, when 5th-generation platforms are still so rare?

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