Since the inception of the RAF 100 years ago, the fighter plane has been a staple of the air service. Used in militaries around the world, fighters have evolved and redefined how battles are fought.
But are fighter jets in danger of being made obsolete by new technology?
Recently, an F-35 fighter crashed in the US, prompting the UK Ministry of Defence to halt their order on more models, and to ground their fleet of 16 planes. The full fleet is scheduled to be made up of 138 F-35 ‘Lightning II’ planes.
The production of these planes has been plagued by setbacks. Original design and manufacture began back in 2001, and they were scheduled to fly for the US military in 2012. They didn’t actually enter active service until four years later. The complete cost of development and production rose from $233 billion in 2001 to $379 billion this year.
The F-35 is equipped with stealth technology to evade radar, prompting Donald Trump to describe the plane as “invisible”. In November last year, he said:
“You can’t see it. You literally can’t see it.”
This is of course untrue. The plane is less likely to be detected on radar sweeps due to its smaller size. It also has jamming technology that could potentially allow it to fly in enemy airspace undetected.
But with new technology emerging at a faster pace than ever before, how much longer will we realistically need planes of the type, and this cost?
The future of aerial warfare may soon come to depend more on the accompanying systems than on the actual plane itself. Data and intel are more valuable in long-term military strategy, so a focus on upgrading sensors, imaging technology, and facial recognition is likely to be a higher priority than newer models of planes.
New planes would fall under the categorisation of ‘sixth’ generation fighters. It's still unclear what capabilities a sixth-generation fighter would have. Some have speculated it could have travel at hypersonic speeds, be able to switch between a manned and an unmanned aircraft, or even shoot lasers.
Hyperconnectivity will play a vital role in engagements in the future. The ability to receive live updates, understand where everyone is on the battlefield, and to control any unmanned aircraft all in one space will make the fighter jet a more versatile weapon.
As scanning and tracking technology becomes more refined, the ability to move through restricted space undetected will become more difficult. Jamming technology already exists, but the ability to maintain it over a wide range will be imperative to win conflicts in the future. Today’s advanced aircraft carry electro-optical/infrared and synthetic aperture radar imaging capabilities. Emerging capabilities include “cognitive” electromagnetic weapons and defences which autonomously find ways to detect enemies.
Sixth-generation fighter jets are expected to fly at anywhere between Mach 2.2 and Mach 2.5. Higher speed at a lower cost will mean fighters are more capable and efficient.