Is the F-35 a 6th generation fighter?

There are a lot of definitions of jet fighter “generations.” I think that one of the most commonly accepted was published by the semi-official Air Force Magazine in 2009. It defines the generations as:

  • 1st Generation ~ Jet propulsion: e.g. the F-80 Shooting Star and the German Me 262;
  • 2nd Generation ~ Swept wings; range radar; infrared missiles: e.g. the F-86 Sabre and the Russian MiG-15;
  • 3rd Generation ~ Supersonic, pulse radar, Beyond-visual-range missiles: e.g. the F-105 Thunderbolt, the F-4 Phantom, and the MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters;
  • cf7819601f2a2a5eb5b80c15f0a8e09c4th Generation ~ Pulse-doppler radar; high manoeuvrability; look-down/shoot-down missiles: e.g. the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, both of which were contenders for Canada’s front line fighter competition in the 1980s, and the French Mirage 2000 and the Russian MiG-29 –
    • 4th Generation + ~ High agility; sensor fusion; reduced radar signature: Eurofighter Typhoon and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, both of which are contenders for Canada’s current fighter competition, the  Russian Su-30, and the French Rafale which was withdrawn from the Canadian jet fighter competition, and
    • 4th Generation ++ ~ Active electronically scanned arrays; continued reduced signatures or “active” (waveform cancelling) stealth technology, supercruise: e.g. the Russian Su-35 and the  proposed F-15SE Silent Eagle; and
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter5th Generation ~ All-aspect stealth with internal weapons bays, extreme agility, full-sensor fusion, integrated avionics, some or full supercruise: e.g. the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II which may be the front runner in the current Canadian competition.

The magazine also, later, proposed a 6th category for advanced aircraft in early developmental stages:

  • 6th Generation ~ Extreme stealth, morphing capability, smart skins, highly networked, extremely sensitive sensors, optionally manned, directed energy weapons.

In 1997, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister and Canada joined the F-35 project as one of the first international partners, the RCAF thought that the government-of-the-day had made an advanced decision and the F-35 was going to be Canada’s new first line fighter ~ probably being delivered right about now, 20 years or so after the project was conceived. That seemed to be confirmed when, in July 2010, Prime Minister Harper’s government announced that it planned to procure 65 of the F-35. That all fell apart, beginning less than a year later when the Parliamentary Budget Officers presented a deeply flawed cost estimate which was, however, far, far better than the “low-ball” estimates which RCAF generals and departmental officials had persuaded then Defence Minister Peter MacKay to present … the official numbers verged on dishonesty. Finally, in May 2012 a new inter-departmental “tiger team” proposed, and the Harper government agreed to a complete rethink of Canada’s jet fighter procurement project. The Department of National Defence shot itself in the foot by trying to deceive the government and the people of Canada; the Auditor General called them on it; based on that the media ~ almost uniformly ~ mounted an intense and intensely ill-informed attack on the aircraft and the project, and, of course, in 2015 Justin . Trudeau said …


… which only confirmed what ⅓ of Canadians already suspected: Justin Trudeau knew nothing and cared even less about defence policy and military matters.

But, as it happens, the F-35 is in the competition and some observers say the rules of the game might actually favour it.

Now, I see in an article in Defence News that “As European defense firms drum up publicity about the sixth-generation fighters they plan to build, Lockheed Martin executives promoted the F-35 as the proven fifth-gen option that could blur the lines with sixth-gen planes as it is upgraded into the 2020s and beyond … [and Michele Evans, Lockheed’s head of aeronautics said, on June 19, that] … “It’s a compliment to the F-35 that many countries are looking to replicate fifth gen and then extending that to sixth gen … [and] … I think it really does reflect on the value of what F-35 is bringing to the pilots and the battlespace. In terms of technology, we’re not going to let F-35 go static.”

The article says that “During a [recent ~ about 10 days ago, now] briefing, Lockheed laid out a series of upgrades that could be adopted during the jet’s “Block 4” modification phase in the mid 2020s … [and Greg Ulmer, Lockheed’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program said that] … Fundamental to Block 4 is the upcoming “Tech Refresh 3” package of IT upgrades, including a new integrated core processor with greater computing power, a panoramic cockpit display and an enhanced memory unit … [and] … The company intends to incorporate TR3 in F-35s starting in Lot 15, with those jets rolling off the production lot in 2023.” Those would be the aircraft that Canada might buy. The article explains that “potential upgrades might lead to an F-35 that blurs the line between a fifth-generation fighter — characterized by stealth and sensor fusion — and a sixth-generation one, which at least currently is seen as having advanced network capabilities that could give the pilot control over external weapons, drones and sensors.” This does, indeed, it seems to me, blur the lines between the 5th and 6th generations and it clearly makes the 4th Generation Super Hornets, Typhoons and Grippens seem less capable and even dated.

I still don’t know what the “best” fighter aircraft is for Canada’s unique needs … but the F-35 Lightning II, the one Justin Trudeau said Canada would not buy,  but which is the choice of so many of our friends and allies, looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

5 thoughts on “Is the F-35 a 6th generation fighter?

  1. For a bunch of reasons I disagree, starting with it is not a long range fast interceptor, it would be closer to a stealthy Ju 87, a stealthy Stuka it was designed to drop bombs rather than go at Bombers and Cruise Missiles it is not particularly quick to get up and at threats coming across the arctic it has a high maintenance over head as proven how many spend their time on the ground. the cost of flying them is more than a bunch other fighter A/C and we all know what happens when there is an economic glitch in Canada flying hours are cut back, saves on fuel and maintenance. There is also the cost of new infra structure that needs to be built because they need specialized hangars, that are air conditioned and with different electrical systems, they need lots of concrete to fly from, long runways which adds up to target. Now you notice I haven’t gone into A/C faults like loss of sovereignty because of the maintenance system having to report to the US, fragility of stealth coating, the few weapons that it can use, and the list of faults that have not been fixed yet, there is a list that the American government publishes with defaults noted. So an expensive, hard to maintain, costly to operate, that doesn’t quite match what we need to keep Canada strong, secure and what ever. Oh and before I close we won’t get to build it so no expertise transfer and if the trend for all airforces of the west use one A/C what happens if a fault is found in the fleet, they all go down. We can do better.

  2. Canada is now caught in a ‘continuous loop’ of over analyzing on this procurement. Unless we exit this loop there can be no possible outcome let alone a correct one. Take a minute to think outside the box, on this procurement, and not even consider what the F-35 can / or can not do.

    The majority of our military allies are purchasing at least a minimum number of F-35, if not all F-35, for their Air Forces. Including Norway which has the same ‘over Arctic’ concerns as Canada. These countries have either held procurement competitions or had a long hard look at the options. It is very unlikely that we have insight, on this procurement, that theses other countries lacked.

    If not the F-35 then what are the options? The French saw no possible chance of success and did not submit an offer for the Rafale. The Typhoon, although capable, is expensive, somewhat dated, and utilized by only a few of our allies. The F-15 is a remarkable aircraft, but realistically too expensive to purchase or operate for Canada. The F-16 is yesterday’s news and should not even be considered. The F-18 Super Hornet, a possible choice, but only if the United States were to promote a truly next generation F-18 and also purchase a large number of airframes themselves. As new technology becomes available it is unlikely the US will incorporate it in to fifty year old F-18 air frames and Canada could be left out. If we truly want to go it alone there is still the Gripen. The least expensive to purchase, operate, and will be manufactured in Canada. A modern and capable aircraft tailored for Northern climates. There is still the option of a split purchase of aircraft, 2/3 Gripen aircraft, to do the day to day operations and 1/3 F-35 aircraft for those times that we need to fly missions alongside our allies.

    There is the possibility of Canada becoming more isolated and less relevant in the current world order. Yes we should consider which aircraft is best suited to Canadian requirements, but we must also consider the ‘big picture’ as this procurement will have an impact on how the rest of the world views our level of influence. Either way, as a country we need to break out of this ‘continuous loop’ and get on with the task at hand.

    1. Excelent analysis, I agree completely. As I keep saying, I don’t know which airctaft is best suited to our needs but your appreciation of the situation, it makes ecellent sense to me.

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