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America’s newest fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, is once again under Congressional fire.
Despite lawmakers’ displeasure with it, U.S. military commanders say the plane is essential.
Commanders see all fifth generation fighters in Russia and China as major concerns.
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The cost and supply issues of the F-35 have once again put the advanced fighter jet in the crosshairs of Congress.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April, Representatives John Garamendi and Donald Norcross – respectively chairmen of the Air and Land Forces Tactical and Readiness subcommittees – made clear their frustration at with regard to the program and told the military not to expect additional funds. .
Top US commanders, however, insist that the F-35 and F-22 – America’s two fifth-generation jets – are indispensable.
In March, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, then head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that fifth generation fighters “are the backbone of any planning for a crisis in the theater “and called them” critical for any future war we may have. “
Two days later Admiral John C. Aquilino, Davidson’s successor, told the committee that he “would be concerned if we reduced our capacity of fifth generation aircraft. I think they are needed to win.” .
In separate Senate and House Armed Services Committee hearings in April, General Tod Wolters, head of the U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said the F-35 was needed “to ensure that we let’s have the competitive advantage ”and that the United States and its allies would be“ weakened ”if its production were reduced.
Officials all cited the development of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation jets as a major concern.
The raptor and the lightning
Introduced in 2005 and 2016 respectively, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II were intended to usher in a new era in which stealth technology played a dominant role in the Air Force’s fighter inventory.
“The F-35 and the F-22 are fundamentally linked. They are cousins,” Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies, told Insider.
The jets were to operate in tandem, with the F-22 as the platform for air-to-air domination and the F-35 excelling in ground strike missions, although it was also capable of air-to-air combat.
The F-22 can carry eight air-to-air missiles or two 1000-pound bombs and two air-to-air missiles in its internal weapon bays.
The F-35 can carry 18,000 pounds of missiles and bombs internally and to critical external points. For close combat, the F-22 has a 20mm rotary cannon and the F-35 has a 25mm rotary cannon.
The F-22s carried out deterrence and strike missions in Syria, while the Air Force and Marine Corps F-35s struck targets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But their electronic suites and stealth coatings are just as important as their weaponry, especially for the F-35.
While the F-22 is better in aerial combat, the F-35 has much more advanced electronics. “Its ability to understand the battlespace is unlike any other. It is literally covered in sensors,” Birkey said of the F-35.
This gives F-35 pilots a huge advantage, especially with the jet’s ability to instantly integrate data from other F-35s and friendly aircraft, allowing them to see much more of the battlefield. The Army and Air Force have already practiced using the F-35’s sensors to guide long-range artillery fire.
Despite the delays and cost overruns, senior U.S. military officials say the F-35 is extremely valuable and that other countries that put it into service feel the same.
The mighty dragon
The first non-US fifth-generation fighter to enter service was China’s Chengdu J-20, also known as the Mighty Dragon. Introduced in 2017, it was developed in response to the F-22 and F-35.
China’s stealth program is said to be based on plans stolen from the United States. The J-20 resembles the F-22 and performs a similar air dominance and interceptor role for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
It doesn’t have a cannon, but the J-20 has internal weapon bays, which can hold six air-to-air missiles.
The J-20 is currently believed to be inferior to its American counterparts in direct aerial combat, in part because the Chinese have struggled to build efficient engines.
Early models were underpowered and lacked thrust vector, allowing the pilot to control the direction of engine thrust.
The Chinese initially used Russian-made engines, but they now equip J-20s with engines of national production: the WS-10C is currently installed as a stopgap until the arrival of the WS-15.
The WS-15 will put the J-20 “on par” with the F-22 and will be available within two years, Chinese military sources told the South China Morning Post in April.
But China has three distinct advantages for the future.
Most of the likely combat scenarios it faces are close to home turf, reducing deployment and maintenance costs for China compared to the U.S. fifth generation aircraft that must deploy and operate from forward bases or ships.
The J-20 is also still in production, which means it can be fine-tuned and improved, while the F-35 program now faces budget limitations and F-22 production has ceased altogether.
China’s air-to-air missile arsenal is also significantly advanced.
The Su-57, known to NATO as the Felon, is Russia’s entry into the fifth generation contest.
It was officially commissioned in December, but first flew in 2010 and has been in development since 2002.
Four internal weapon bays can carry six air-to-air missiles, and six more can be attached to external hard points on the wings. It also has a single-barrel 30mm automatic cannon for close combat.
Not much is known about the Su-57. Its size, shape, and top speed of around Mach 2 (similar to the J-20 and F-22) suggest that it is believed to play an air dominance role like the F-22.
Russia has a history of producing advanced electronic warfare technologies, but some analysts are skeptical of the Su-57’s stealth capabilities compared to its US and Chinese counterparts.
Two Su-57s deployed to Syria twice, but only for brief periods and without conducting combat missions.
“They haven’t really sent it out there in volume or for extended periods of time, which suggests that some of the issues that would be developing are probably still developing,” Birkey said.
But Russia has big plans for the Su-57.
It hopes to acquire 76 of them by the end of 2028, using them to test hypersonic missiles and, from 2024, to operate armed S-70 Okhotnik-B drones alongside them.
The drone will be a “loyal wingman” controlled by Su-57 pilots.
Stealth is the future
While fifth generation racing is now dominated by the United States, China and Russia, several countries are planning to build their own fifth and sixth generation fighters.
South Korea recently unveiled a stealth fighter (although less stealthy than the F-35) it is developing with Indonesia and hopes to line up by 2028.
India, Turkey and Britain each hope to deploy their own fifth or sixth generation aircraft between 2028 and 2035, while Japan intends to deploy a sixth generation stealth fighter by 2035. France , Germany and Spain are also working together on a sixth-generation fighter that they hope to have operational by 2040.
“The fact that this proliferates widely shows you that to be relevant in the modern combat environment, you are either fifth generation or an expensive target,” Birkey said.
The US Air Force is working on its own sixth generation fighter known as the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.
An NGAD demonstrator has already been flown, but General Mark D. Kelly, head of the Air Combat Command, has expressed concern that the United States will not be able to “deploy this capability before someone like the Chinese do not use it and use it against us “.
Kelly’s comments reflect the complexity expected in future conflicts and the importance of stealth planes in overcoming them.
“The wars that we are looking at more and more, and that the F-22 and F-35 are built for, are wars where if we don’t succeed, life changes fundamentally in a very bad way,” Birkey said. . “We have to wake up and act on it.”
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