There was a time not so long ago when the phrase “fifth-generation fighter” was used almost exclusively by aerospace engineers. Not anymore. The South Korean government’s decision to walk away from an improved version of the legacy F-15 fighter and seek a fifth-generation solution to its tactical aircraft needs signals that the phrase now has assumed importance to military and political leaders around the world too.
That’s good news for Lockheed Martin, which makes the only fifth-generation fighter available in export markets — the F-35. It is bad news for any other builder of tactical aircraft, because it indicates the F-35 is acquiring a status as the only suitable replacement for Cold War fighters. It isn’t common for a single-engine fighter like the F-35 to be viewed as the likely successor to twin-engine aircraft such as the F-15 and carrier-based F/A-18, but the fact that it is underscores how important the idea of fifth-generation performance has become to warfighters.
Fifth-generation means, first and foremost, a degree of survivability and situational awareness that other aircraft cannot match. The survivability results from an integrated stealth design that deprives adversaries of the ability to detect or track it. The web-site globalsecurity.org states that the radar cross-section of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, presumably in its head-on or forward aspect, is approximately one meter. That’s a big improvement over the 25-meter cross-section of the original F-15, although not quite so good as the half-meter RCS of the Typhoon Eurofighter. However, the F-35 cross-section is given by the same source as 0.005 square meters — meaning it would be effectively invisible to air-defense radars.
When you combine the F-35’s integrated stealth features with the situational awareness afforded by its advanced sensors, it becomes clear why South Korea walked away from the F-15. F-15 in the “Silent Eagle” configuration contractor Boeing was offering might be adequate to cope with the threats South Korea faces today, but it simply can’t match the performance of the F-35 in measures that have come to dominate the thinking of military planners. You don’t really need the extreme speed and maneuverability of an F-15 if your adversary’s radars can’t see you and his missiles can’t lock on to you.
So whatever twists and turns the South Korean fighter competition takes from this point onward, the ultimate winner is not in question. If Lockheed offers a better price and learns to be humble, it might secure an order for 60 planes. If its price doesn’t come down, then Seoul might buy fewer planes. But in the end, it will choose the F-35 for its future fighter — just as Australia, Japan, Israel, Italy, Britain, Norway and the Netherlands have. You see, the real meaning of South Korea’s decision on Tuesday was that if you don’t have fifth-generation fighters in your force, then you can’t be a leading military power in the world of tomorrow.
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