Demand for fourth-generation aircraft still strong in fifth-generation era

Following the news that the United States Air Force (USAF) is looking to acquire a new fourth-generation aircraft, even as the fifth-generation F-35 fleet expands, Abhijit Apsingikar, Aerospace & Defense Analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, offers his view:

“The USAF’s studies into the future composition of its tactical aircraft fleet suggests the possibility of the service ordering the design and development of a new fourth-generation fighter aircraft platform. This will help overcome some of the upgradation issues with available platforms.

“GlobalData’s 2019 analysis stated that the prohibitive costs of procuring fifth-generation fighter aircraft in any significant volumes precludes them from fully replacing 4-4.5-generation fighter aircraft. This statement still holds true and now has been further validated. Although fifth-generation fighter aircraft such as F-35 represents the pinnacle of modern military aerospace technology, the enormous operational and maintenance costs associated with platforms will continue to preclude them from fully replacing 4-4.5-generation aircraft.

“Fifth-generation fighters typically have a higher maintenance requirement especially with respect to their low observable coating, and require frequent servicing. They also have a significantly lower availability as compared to fourth-generation platforms. Thus 4-4.5-generation aircraft platforms such as the F-16 Viper, Gripen E, Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, SU-35 and F-15 will continue to remain relevant in air combat operations for the foreseeable future.

“The fourth-generation fighter aircraft nevertheless will undergo significant transformation, especially in terms of signature management of its Radar Cross Section (RCS) and electronic-warfare self-defense suite. Technological innovations such as high speed data-links, sensor fusion, Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) coatings, long range passive IRST sensors, Enclosed Weapon Pods (EWP), Submerged RAM air turbines and recessed hardpoints will witness widespread adoption to mitigate the radar profile of future fourth-generation fighter aircrafts.

“A clear demarcation in operational roles for both fifth and fourth-generation aircraft will be established. Fifth and the upcoming sixth-generation fighter aircraft will be the bedrock of USAF Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) strategy and will be pivotal in Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) roles and Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties. Ground attack bombing role will be relegated to fourth-generation fighter aircraft, as their greater payload capacity will be crucial in ground attack duties. This applies universally to all air forces worldwide and as air forces try to navigate a future with constrained funding, cost effective fourth-generation platforms will remain relevant at least for the next three to four decades.”

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