The future of air power

How China is getting even, and Europe falling behind
The Chinese dragon takes wings

The Chinese dragon takes wings

Since their debut in the closing months of World War II, jet fighters have represented the zenith of aviation technology for nearly 70 years and a nation’s air power is intrinsically linked to the quantity and the quality of its fighter arsenals. In those seven decades, fighters have evolved into sophisticated weapons of war, capable of flying day and night in all weather faster than the speed of sound, of performing a myriad of duties such as bombing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance, and of incorporating technologies that only yesterday would have seemed straight out of a science fiction movie such as stealth and helmet-mounted sights. More importantly, they’re friggin’ awesome, as the droves of moviegoers who tried to enlist in the US Navy after watching Top Gun proved. If you’re still not convinced, just go to an air show to hear the roar of jet fighter’s engine, or the crack of its sonic boom, and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

But aside from its glamor, air power has evolved into an essential component of modern warfare since World War II, to the point that many strategists consider it to be capable of winning wars on its own (I disagree but this is another story). Certainly the four-day ground campaign which defeated the Iraqi Army in the first Gulf War would have not been so quick and overwhelming had the US and Coalition air forces not pounded it into near-submission for various weeks. But what does the future behold for air power? Will the West’s technological lead over its adversaries, so dramatically shown in the recent conflicts in the Middle East and Yugoslavia, endure in the coming decades or is the balance of power and technology shifting elsewhere? What better way than to see the evolution of fighter aircraft since the first jets took to the skies.

Fighters throughout the generations

Jet fighters have gone through various generations since the first German Me 262s began flowing combat missions against the Allies shortly after D-Day. These generations are relatively easy to identify since technological change has gone though various quantum leaps. The first generation of jets, for example, were essentially only faster, more powerful versions of the piston-engined fighters they replaced. Entering service after the Korean War, the second generation saw the emergence of the first supersonics and carried early air-to-air missiles. Most were also all-weather, and capable of flying day or night missions. The third generation were even faster (twice the speed of sound was not uncommon) and had much improved capabilities for ground attack and electronic warfare. Air-to-air missiles became standard, to the point that some fighters from this generation such as the F-4 Phantom actually carried no cannons in their early variants! This proved to be a big mistake, however, as the Vietnam war showed that most air combat still took place at close quarters and at sub-sonic speeds.

For those who grew up watching Top Gun (myself included), the fourth generation has epitomized the modern fighter of our day. Fighters from this generation began entering service in the late seventies and formed the basis of Coalition air power during the first Gulf War, as well as the NATO forces which struck at Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. This generation has been quite long-lived: the F-16 began entering squadron service in 1978 and remains the most numerous US combat aircraft today! Lastly, the fifth generation is perhaps the most important quantum leap yet seen in the jet era as they are the first to have stealth technology as a standard feature. So far, only the US fields such a plane, the F-22, but both Russia and China have already flown prototypes which are likely to enter service in the second half of the decade. Also worth mentioning is an interim “4.5” generation, applied to aircraft with more advanced avionics than the fourth generation but lacking stealth (although they may incorporate some stealth features).

I have made the following chart which shows the entry into service of all major fighters from seven leading air powers since World War II: the US, the USSR/Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden – color coded for the generation that they represent. I have chosen these seven countries since they are the only ones to have a strong domestic aircraft industry which has consistently developed new fighters over the past 60+ years (Germany is the exception, but I’m including it by virtue of being the pioneer of jet technology). One should note that most of China’s early designs were licence-produced (or copied) versions of Soviet second and third generation fighters. I have nevertheless included them in order to show the dramatic progression of Chinese fighter technology through the decades.

Here’s the chart:


Europe falling behind

Looking at the chart, three trends should be apparent. 1) How the US took a huge technological lead starting in the third generation and has held on to it since, 2) how China has caught up dramatically, and 3) how Europe is falling behind. The Chinese case is remarkable: having designed its first truly indigenous fighter only until 1980 (all previous designs were clones of Soviet MiGs), in the space of four decades it will have bridged three generations to the point that it will be one of the only stealth fighter-equipped air forces by the end of the present decade, along with the US and Russia. As for Europe, its bet on 4.5 generation fighters may have proved to be a costly mistake. Although nobody is doubting the capabilities of the Eurofighter or the Rafale (as their success in the Libyan conflict has shown), to bank your country’s air power for the first half of the 21st century on designs which are only modest improvements over fourth generation fighters like the F-16 appears to be folly when considering three of your technological rivals will be stealth-equipped by 2020. This is even more pronounced when considering that many fourth generation fighters have received improvements in recent years, such as vastly superior AESA radars and helmet-mounted sights, which almost put them on par with their 4.5 generation rivals at a discounted cost.

Little surprise that 4.5 generation fighters have been rather unsuccessful on the global sales markets – most countries would get more bank for the buck from an F-16, or see it as a smarter tactic to wait and get a proper fifth generation fighter like the upcoming F-35, notwithstanding the serious doubts over many of its capabilities. What is increasingly clear is that just as the global economic balance is shifting, so is the military technological balance. Given its huge existing lead and its commitment to heavy defence spending (sadly ahead of other domestic priorities), the US will likely remain at the head of the curve for a few more decades, but China will be nipping at its heels in a short while. And assuming that Russia maintains strong links to many aspiring military powers such as India or possibly Brazil in the near future, opportunities for joint collaboration and financing will keep its once-thriving military industries alive and kicking, and its partners will benefit from the technology transfers that such collaborations entail.

But if fiscally-constrained Europe wants to remain in the top tier, it will have to be more ambitious. How much military spending Europeans wish to responsibly pursue given the continent’s more pressing social and economic needs is, of course, the crux of its dilemma.

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