How are Fighter Jet Generations classified?

The historical development of jet fighters has been divided into major technological advances called “jet fighter generations.”

Different authorities have divided the development of fighters into various numbers of generations by identifying various technological leaps as critical ones. Five generations are already universally acknowledged, and work on a sixth is currently ongoing.

From the vault

Air historian Richard P. Hallion proposed a six-generation classification of jet fighters in 1990. Since then, other methods with five generations up to around the same time have been reported, however, the generational boundaries are different.

A NASA web publication divides jet development into five stages: pioneer (straight wing), swept wing, transonic, the 1960s, and 1970s on, culminating in types such as the F-15, F-16, and AV-8A. Taylor and Guilmartin name four: subsonic, transonic, supersonic, and Mach 2, and add a fifth “new” generation with multimission capability.

AV-8A | Representative |

There is some debate over and disagreement over the precise requirements for the different generation steps. Some sources have separated the fourth generation into the 4+ and 4++ or the 4 and 4.5 generations.

But what standards are used to identify a fighter generation and one or more aircraft from each generation?


First Generation

The first jet fighters were created at the close of World War II. According to Matthew Bekaert, an aviation expert, they actually don’t differ all that much from prop planes, save from the type of engine. main elements:

  • Jet engines
  • Straight wings
  • Subsonic speeds
  • no avionics / radar

They resembled their piston-engined counterparts in most ways, including having straight, unswept wings and being made of wood or light metal. They were equipped primarily with manually operated guns and had minimal to no avionics. While models like the de Havilland Vampire and Lockheed F-80 were still being prepared for operational service near the end of the war, the Heinkel He 162 and Gloster Meteor also saw service during that period.

Heinkel He 162 | Wikipedia

Transonic speeds were made possible by the invention of the swept wing, but controllability was sometimes compromised at these speeds. Usually, these planes were designed for air superiority interceptor duty.

The North American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 are notable models that fought in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.

MiG-15 | Air Legend

Gloster Meteor, ME 262, P80 (later F-80), and MiG-9 are other examples.

Gloster Meteor | Honeywell

Second Generation

The 1950–1953 Korean War necessitated a significant reconsideration. At such high speeds, guns proved to be ineffective, and the necessity of multirole capability in battlefield support was once again realized. Afterburning engines were used by interceptor types that emerged after the war to achieve Mach 2 performance, while radar and infrared homing missiles significantly increased their accuracy and potency.

Lockheed F-104 Starfighter | Wikipedia

This period was typified by the American Century series, which included the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, the Russian MiG-21, the English Electric Lightning, and the French Dassault Mirage III. Adaptations for wartime support tasks quickly jeopardized several kinds, and some of these would continue in new forms for several generations.

English Electric Lightning | BAE Systems

Characteristic features:

  • Swept wings
  • Transonic velocity
  • Early gun aiming systems that used radar
  • Firat heat-seeking missiles

 Some other examples include the F-86, MiG-15, Mig-17, F9F8 and the Hawker Hunter.

Third Generation

The multirole capabilities of the upcoming aircraft were planned from the beginning. They were expected to be able to engage in air-to-air interception outside of visual range and carry a variety of armaments and additional munitions, including air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided bombs. Pulse-doppler radar, off-sight aiming, and terrain-warning systems were some of their supporting avionics.

MiG-19 | Mudspike

Characteristic features:

  • High-tech radar systems
  • Cannons were reduced to a supporting role as stronger heat-seeking missiles and radar-guided missiles took the lead. Limited BVR
  • Mach 2 engines with afterburners

Extended range and sortie times were brought about by the development of more cost-effective turbofan engines, while improved performance and maneuverability across the speed spectrum was only partially achieved by increasing thrust.

Mirage III | Wikipedia

Examples include Mig-19 and 21, F-4 Phantom, F-8 Crusader, Mirage 3 and Electric Lightning.

Fourth Generation

After the multirole generation’s varying degrees of success, advanced technologies like fly-by-wire, composite materials, thrust-to-weight ratios greater than one, hypermaneuvrability, advanced digital avionics and sensors like synthetic radar and infrared search-and-track, and stealth were being developed.

Mirage 2000 | Wikipedia

Characteristic features:

  • Improved radar systems with lookdown and shootdown capabilities
  • Better heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles. BVR
  • Fly By Wire for better agility and computer-assisted flight

F 16 | Wikipedia

Examples include Mirage 2000, F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, Mig-29 and SU-27.

4.5 Generation

This generation of fighters featured high-capacity digital communications- which was touted to be one of the emerging 5th generation technology, thereby prompting some observers to classify intermediate generations as 4.5 or 4+ and 4++.

Dassault Rafale | Source

Examples of generation 4.5 aircraft that enhance generation 4 with EASA radars, technologies to reduce radar reflection, networking, etc. include the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, MiG-35, SU-30, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

Fifth Generation

A new type of advanced forward C3 (command, control, and communications) presence over the battlefield was made possible by the enormous advancements in digital processing and mobile networking that started in the 1990s. Prior to the advancement of information technology, such aircraft had to be huge transport types modified for the task, but now the requisite data systems might be carried by a much smaller and more maneuverable aircraft.

F 22 Raptor | Representative | Lockheed Martin

It was now conceivable to integrate the C3, fighter, and ground support tasks in a single, agile aircraft, and sophisticated automation and human interfaces could significantly reduce crew workload. Such a fighter—and its pilot—would need to be able to loiter for extended periods of time, compete well in battle, stay aware of the battlefield, and swiftly change roles as the situation required.

Characteristic features:

  • Stealth or low-observability characteristics
  • Enhanced communication and networking between different planes

The generations are of course a bit blurry, an upgraded gen 3 jet can easily be considered a gen 4. An early gen 4 like an F-16 is no match for the latest Rafale

According to Bekaert 

Only three countries—the United States, Russia, and China—have designed and constructed models of fifth-generation aircraft because they are both expensive and technologically sophisticated

Sixth Generation

Only in theory do sixth-generation fighters exist. The technology is still cutting edge in terms of stealth, supercruise, supermaneuvrability, and interconnectivity.

The US, Russia, China, Japan, the UK, and France are among the nations developing 6th-generation aircraft, some of which have never even produced a fifth-generation fighter.

Representative | Royal Air Force

Even though the sixth generation of aircraft is still in its infancy, a number of distinctive characteristics have come together to define what a sixth-generation fighter is.

The aircraft industry is less concerned with the close-quarters dogfighting that characterized aerial combat in the 20th century. Instead, ground assaults, cyber conflicts, and even space conflicts are becoming more important. Combat with beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles is still crucial.

Several design components will be used to accomplish the performance attributes anticipated of a sixth-generation fighter. The “brains” of the airplane will serve as the cornerstone of sixth-generation technology: powerful digital platforms with networking capabilities, internal AI, data fusion, and cutting-edge communications tools.

Virtual Cockpit | Representative | Fast Company

The jets will have components that make it easier for the pilot to work in unison with the machine. Therefore, new fighters will probably include “virtual cockpits” displayed into the pilot’s helmet, giving the pilot 360 degrees of visibility, in addition to a modern instrument panel.

According to some, sixth-generation aircraft may even be equipped with directed-energy weaponry, such as laser CIWS.

Directed Energy Weapon | Source

There are numerous 6th generation fighter concepts in development. Working on the F-X program is Japan. The Future Combat Air System is a joint effort between the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. The PAK DP, a planned interceptor aircraft that could replace the MiG-31, is one of many projects being worked on by Russia, a country with a long history of great aerospace accomplishments.

The Japanese FX Stealth fighter | Representative | 19FortyFive

India is still working on a fifth-generation model as it attempts to match China’s remarkable military build-up, but it is also looking ahead and beginning to make plans for the development of sixth-generation technology. And China, who has already developed a successful fifth-generation jet, the Chengdu J-20, has started looking into a 6th generation fighter aircraft to support their ever growing military.


COVER: 19FortyFive