Demand for fourth-generation fighter aircraft still strong in fifth-generation era, says GlobalData

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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 up-gradation 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-defence 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 aircraft.

“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.”

19 February 2021

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