Given the recent appearance in Australia of F-22s and F-35s, it’s timely to revisit some observations on fifth-generation capabilities made by one of Australia’s first F-22 pilots

Earlier this year, twelve USAF F-22s deployed from their home base in Alaska to Tindal and Townsville. It was the first ‘Enhanced Air Cooperation‘ activity in Australia involving the world’s best air-to-air combat aircraft and the RAAF.

Two United States Air Force F-22 aircraft arrive at RAAF Base Tindal under grey skies and rain in the Northern Territory, ahead of the first Enhanced Air Cooperation activity in Australia.

Two United States Air Force F-22 aircraft arrive at RAAF Base Tindal under grey skies and rain in the Northern Territory, ahead of the first Enhanced Air Cooperation activity in Australia. [Image credit: RAAF]

At the same time, but on the other side of the world, in Nevada, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the RAAF is acquiring, made a highly successful debut in the USAF’s premier international air warfare exercise, Red Flag. Shortly afterwards, Australia’s first two F-35s appeared at the Avalon air show, following a trans-Pacific flight.

The F-22 and the F-35 are the world’s only operational fifth-generation strike/fighters. Given the significance of these separate but complementary activities, it’s worthwhile revisiting some observations made about the Fifth-Generation capability by one of the RAAF’s first F-22 pilots, Wing Commander Matthew Harper, at a previous Williams Foundation seminar.

Why fifth-generation is different

The term fourth to fifth generation suggests a gradual step-change function, much like the evolution of airpower over the past 50 years. However, fifth-generation isn’t a step-change – it’s a leap into a whole new way of doing air combat and combat operations.

This new way is so different that it actually requires Fourth generation pilots (in Harper’s case, the RAAF’s Super Hornet) to undergo an ‘unlearning’ process.

The suggestion made by some commentators that the RAAF should have gone into an equipment ‘holding pattern’ and bought more fourth-generation aircraft would not have provided a path to the future: it would have left us stranded in a different, outdated historical epoch.

It would’ve been comparable to cavalry charges with horses and Blitzkrieg warfare, something that didn’t work out very well for Poland in 1939.

The systems in the F-22– which take an even greater leap forward in the F-35– provide the pilot with a decision-making role, not an overburdened ‘look at your screens and sort out what to do’ role.

Three key experiences highlight the meaning of fifth-generation:

  • First, within thirty minutes of sitting down in a simulator, pilots realise that in an F-22 they will dominate the air space.
  • Second, their abilities are dramatically augmented.  One USAF pilot with only 350 hours total flight time flew an F-22 in Exercise Red Flag and dominated his airspace. This is impossible to imagine in any other aircraft.
  • Third, a USAF F-15C pilot stated that, ‘I have more situational awareness with only 20 hours on the F-22A than I ever had in over 1500 hours on the F-15C’.

Making Fifth-Generation Work

The overarching point of Wing Commander Harper’s presentation was that the fifth-generation experience is about disruptive change, not evolution. Pilots need to fly F-22s and F-35s to comprehend the extent of that change, and to learn how to shape tactics and concepts of operations relevant to 21st century operations, rather than try to apply their 20th century piloting skills acquired from fourth-generation systems.

Wing Commander Harper emphasised that the Super Hornet is in no way comparable to the F-22. The Super Hornet is limited by not having been built from the ground up as an information dominance aircraft; by comparison, the F-22 is a situational awareness and information dominance system for the 21st century battlespace,

The Super Hornet is a significant upgrade from the classic Hornet, but it can never deliver fifth-generation capabilities; namely, integrated data fusion, and re-shaping the pilot and squadron roles in prosecuting air dominance and support to the joint force.

In short, the leap ahead is crucial, and reworking the culture of the RAAF will be necessary to leverage the disruptive technology inherent in its emerging fifth-generation platforms.