Fighter generations comparison chart

The appearance of the new J-20 (unofficially dubbed “Black Eagle”) raised many questions about the Chinese stealth fighter. Some experts think it will be more capable than the F-22; others (and I’m among these ones) think that the real problem for the US with the J-20 is not with the aircraft’s performance, equipment and capabilities (even if the US legacy fighters were designed 20 years earlier than current Chinese or Russian fighters of the same “class”); the problem is that China will probably build thousands of them.

Anyway, comparing the US and Chinese fighters, everybody referred to “fifth generation planes” bringing once again the concept of “fighter generation” under the spotlight.

Generations are a common way to classify jet fighters. Often, generations have been “assigned” to fighters in accordance with the timeframes encompassing the peak period of service entry for such aircraft.

The best definition I’ve found so far of fighter generations is the one contained in an article published in 2009 by Air Force Magazine, that proposes a generations breakdown based on capabilities:

Generation 1: Jet propulsion

Generation 2: Swept wings; range-only radar; infrared missiles

Generation 3: Supersonic speed; pulse radar; able to shoot at targets beyond visual range.

Generation 4: Pulse-doppler radar; high maneuverability; look-down, shoot-down missiles.

Generation 4+: High agility; sensor fusion; reduced signatures.

Generation 4++: Active electronically scanned arrays; continued reduced signatures or some “active” (waveform canceling) stealth; some supercruise.

Generation 5: All-aspect stealth with internal weapons, extreme agility, full-sensor fusion, integrated avionics, some or full supercruise.

Potential Generation 6: extreme stealth; efficient in all flight regimes (subsonic to multi-Mach); possible “morphing” capability; smart skins; highly networked; extremely sensitive sensors; optionally manned; directed energy weapons.

In order to give the readers a rough idea of the type of aircraft belonging to each generation based on the above breakdown I’ve prepared the following table with the help of Tom Cooper / ACIG.org and Ugo Crisponi / Aviatiographic.com, who provided the profiles. It’s not meant to show all the aircraft theoretically belonging to a generation and includes only the profiles available at the time of writing…

As I’ve already said on Twitter, what such a table should let you understand at a glance is that capabilities and appearance are inversely proportional: former generations aircraft look much better than more modern fighters…..

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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

10 Comments

  1. This post is fundamental – I’ve already seen good articles about jet fighter generations but this one is quite clear about it.

    Furthermore, it is capital to show how these fighters are filed in order to understand the stakes of military aviation history.

    Congratulations again for this excellent blog!

  2. Sorry to disagree with you, but I think that the modern fighters are a lot sexier than the older generations. I absolutely love almost all of the fighters above the fourth generation.

    • Hello,
      I’m pretty sure that many agree with you, so don’t worry!
      The more I get older the more I tend to appreciate former generations design and look. Furthermore, if you think that the F-104 was (and still is) my favourite aircraft you’ll understand the reasons why in my opinion generation 3 is far sexier than 4, 4+, 4++ and 5 (the latter one being quite ugly).

      • Gen 3 and 4 are the best looking generation, while I’ve not seen an F-104 in person, I’ve seen T-38s, A-7s, F-16s, F-15s and F-22s in person almost daily and the Gen 3 and 4s look better.

        The F-22 has an unreal engine noise and is almost hard to focus on when it’s against a grey sky.

  3. F-35 is missing any super-cruise and high agility (supermaneuverability)attributed to the Gen 5 definition. So isn’t it really Gen 4++?

    • Well,
      you have to consider those capabilities as being some of those attributed to a particular generation hence the F-35, although not being supermaneuverable, is an all-aspect stealth with internal weapons whose systems ensure full-sensor fusion (capabilities that are not in Gen 4++ series).

  4. What would a comparable chart for bombers be? Gen 1 Turbojets and Turbofans? Gen 2 all jet engine, Gen 3, variable geometry, Gen 4 Stealthy, Gen 5 full stealth?

    So for the US
    Gen 1 B-50, B-36
    Gen 2 B-47, B-52
    Gen 3 F-111
    Gen 4 B-1B
    Gen 5 B-2A

    • That’s an interesting question. I’ve always thought to fighter generations, simply because they develop faster than bombers.
      Your chart makes sense to me.

    • You should have included the F117, which was designated a fighter only because Congress was refusing to fund more bombers when it came out. It has no fighter capability whatsoever, and its mission profiles are inevitably that of a stealth bomber.

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