Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?
The US dominates the airspace when it comes to the world’s most advanced fighter jets. However, today’s list of top ten fighter jets still includes some close competition.
Battle for First: F-35 vs. F-22
#1: F-35 Lightning II
Three years ago Lockheed Martin’s F-35 might not have even made the list. Its development was behind schedule, over budget, and plagued with technical problems to the point where the New York Times called it a “dysfunctional.”[i] However, since then the F-35 has been climbing to the top of the fighter jet pyramid.
The F-22 Raptor is also a serious contender for the top spot. By the latest reports, the F-35 has a maximum speed of only about Mach 1.61 or about 1,235 mph, while the F-22 can reach Mach 2.25. The F-35 is also reported to be slightly less maneuverable than the two-engine F-22.[ii]
So, what breaks the tie between the F-35 and the F-22? Warrior asked the pilots.
“If I have to go to war, I'm going to be in an F-35,” Chris “Worm” Spinelli, F-35 Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin told Warrior. His colleagues agree. The deciding factor for them, and the reason the F-35 is the most technically advanced jet in the world today, is Situational Awareness (SA).
“The biggest, game-changing difference that I've seen…is the F-35’s fusion and integration of all of the different sensors from the aircraft,” Spinelli told Warrior. “It brings together a holistic picture that's quite amazing.”[iii]
To generate this picture each F-35 is equipped with a Distributed Aperture System (DAS), Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS), and Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) avionics.[iv] Unliked passive array radar, AESA radar simultaneously produces multiple waves of different frequencies. These waves are directed electronically rather than by physically moving an antenna and are both transmitted and received by computer-controlled modules.[v] These characteristics mean that AESA radar activity generates situational data more efficiently while also being harder to detect.
As previously reported by Warrior, Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) technology allows F-35s to establish secure network integration with each other. According to Lockheed Martin, additional sensor integration technology also allows operational information sharing between the F-35 and ground and sea platforms.[vi]
A key element of the F-35’s advanced SA technology is pilot experience. According to Lockheed Martin’s test pilots, the jet itself is “easy” to fly. This allows the pilot to devote more concentration to the cohesive battlefield picture presented on a touch-screen display in the cockpit. The pilot is able to see everything from basic flight metrics to advanced sensory data and is able to customize the display in real-time. Furthermore, each helmet also has a customizable display that is networked with the F-35’s avionics.[vii]
The F-35 is compatible with the latest air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, including the AIM 9X SideWinder and the Storm Shadow weapons systems. However, its pilots note that perhaps the mark of a truly advanced fighter jet is being so many steps ahead of the adversary that it never actually needs to fight.[viii]
#2: The F-22 Raptor
If it is surpassed by the F-35, then the F-22 Raptor easily earns second place. The stealth, speed, and maneuverability of the F-22 sets it apart. It can reach a speed of Mach 2.25, or 1,726 mph, and features a Triplex fly-by-wire system and thrust-vectoring technology.[ix]
“The F-22 has given us thrust vectors and there's not another US fighter anywhere near as capable as an F-22 at performing drastic maneuvering in the high airway regime,” Chris “Worm” Spinelli, F-35 Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin told Warrior.
The F-22 employs the AN/APG-77 or AN/APG-77(V)1 radar avionics systems and as part of the Air Force’s Joint All-Domain Operation strategy, the F-22 includes TADIL J transmission technology. TADIL J transmission, also called Link 16 by NATO, allows the exchange of J-series fixed-definition binary data “words” between other F-22s or any platforms with Link 16 capabilities.[x]
Highly advanced stealth technologies also define the F-22. Its design features edge alignment, serpentine bends, and angled vans to reduce its radar and plain-sight visibility. The F-22 also has the ability to reduce its infrared signature through its flat thrust-vectoring nozzle technology.[xi]
Significantly, the export of the F-22 is forbidden under U.S. Federal Law, which could indicate that it has additional new technology that remains confidential for national security purposes.
China and Russia Lead the Remaining Top Five
#3: Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon”
The true performance capability of China’s Chengdu J-20 fighter jet is known only to the Chinese government, but the information that is available places it high on the list of advanced fighter jets.
The J-20 reportedly carries more weapons systems than the F-22, with an internal weapons bay and two side-bays for both long and short-range missiles.[i] It is equipped with retractable missile launchers that can slide out on rails and then stow away to reduce the jet’s radar profile. Additional stealth is achieved by the J-20’s integrated fly-by-wire system and through its ability to power the engine on low intake, which reduces heat signature.
While China claims the J-20 is capable of speeds slightly over Mach 2,[ii] there has been some discrepancy surrounding the jet’s engines. It was initially reported to use the less-advanced Russian AL-31 turbofan engines, but this year the South China Morning Post reported that the J-20 was being upgraded and equipped with new WS-15 engines.[iii]
#4: Sukhoi Su-57
Similar to the J-20, the Russian Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jet’s placement on the list is determined by limited available information. It is known that the Su-57 has advanced situational awareness technology, which includes AESA radar embedded in the jet’s “cheeks” for wider range, and onboard infrared search and track technology. It reportedly has a powerful onboard computer and operates using the Sh121 multifunctional integrated radio electronic system (MIRES)-Byelka radar.[iv] Along with the F-35, F-22, and J-20, the Su-57 has Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities.
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In terms of stealth, the Su-57 is capable of storing weapons inside its fuselage, reducing its profile. It also has modulated laser technology that can “blind” heat-sensor-based incoming fire. Laser modulating can be accomplished by controlling the laser’s power source or by physically disrupting the laser through acoustic vibration or other means.[v]
Although highly advanced in many areas, the Su-57 is thought to employ the Saturn AL-41F1 engine, which is a slightly older model.[vi]
#5: F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
Available reports show that with a top speed of just Mach 1.8, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is slower than the F-22 and even the J-20, but its efficiency and weapons-capacity are still noteworthy.
The F/A-18 and E/F versions feature long-range fuel storage capabilities and the E/F has 11 onboard weapons stations for air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons systems. It also has the capacity to carry advanced laser-guided “smart” weapons.[i] However, the F/A-18E/F does carry its weapons load externally, which reduces its stealth capabilities.
Speed and Weaponry Define the Runner-Ups
#6: Eurofighter Typhoon
Jointly developed by Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the Eurofighter Typhoon is fast, but has room for maneuverability improvement.
The Eurofighter was designed to be a beyond-visual-range capability as well as an air-to-ground engagement asset.[ii] It is currently compatible with the most advanced European air-to-air, air-to-ground, and air-to-ship missiles and is equipped with the Euroradar CAPTOR AESA radar.
#7: F-15 Eagle
As the fourth U.S. fighter jet to make the list the F-15 is notable for its weapons capacity and speed. Along with the F-22 and F-35, the F-15 E is compatible with the top weapons systems in air-to-air weaponry, including the AIM-120 and the AIM-9x Sidewinder. It has advanced target detection and tracking technology and is capable of carrying up to 2300 pounds of ordinance.
The F-15E has a high thrust to weight ratio and as such was the first fighter jet with the ability to vertically accelerate. Faster than even the F-22, the F-15E can reach speeds of over Mach 2.5.[i]
#8: Sukhoi Su-35
The Russian Sukhoi Su-35 can reach speeds of Mach 2.25 and features three-dimensional thrust vectoring technology that makes this fighter jet both fast and maneuverable.
It has a total of twelve weapons stations and can carry more than twice the ordinance of the F-15 Eagle. However, though unconfirmed, it is thought to use the Irbis-E Passive Electronically Scanned Array radar, which unlike AESA radar, can only emit a single wave at a fixed frequency and likely relies on physical antenna receptors.[ii]
#9: Dassault Rafale
The French Dassault Rafales’ most significant capability is that its advanced avionics and weapons system integration allow it to track up to 40 targets and fire on four targets simultaneously. As part of this interconnected avionics system, the Dassault Rafale employs the MDPU Thales RBE2-AA AESA radar.
Though reported to be highly maneuverable, the Dassault Rafale only reaches a max speed of Mach 1.8.[iii]
#10: JAS 39E Gripen
The Swedish Saab JAS 39E Gripen may not be last on this list for long. According to Saab, the JAS 39E is equipped with the most advanced AESA radar and ten onboard weapons stations. Its avionics include Artificial Intelligence (AI) integration components and advanced sensor technology.[iv]
For now, it appears that the JAS 39E was designed according to domestic priorities of affordability and Swedish airspace protection, but beyond these bounds its technology has the potential to impact future development of all fighter jets on this list.
Katherine Owens is an Editorial Fellow at Warrior Maven. She previously wrote for Defense Systems and holds a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University, where she studied security policy and specialized in arms control and nuclear deterrence. Katherine has received an M.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.