Very often, when it comes to comparing aircraft like the F35, the Su-57 and the J-20 to European aircraft like the Rafale , the Typhoon or the JAS39 Gripen, a strong argument is used to close the debate , that of the 5th generation . Indeed, according to a widely used classification, the former would be 5th generation devices, while the latter would only be 4th generation devices, sometimes classified as 4G+ in a rather condescending manner to reflect their level of performance. So what are these generations that are so important that they would allow combat aircraft to be leveled unequivocally? And is this classification relevant and revealing of operational realities? We will see in this article that the facts are far from being so clear-cut…
What is a generation of combat aircraft?
A “generation of combat aircraft” is an empirical term intended to create groups in order to study the major developments that have marked the history of combat aviation. It would be possible to define a new generation as follows:
« A set of major new technologies applied to the design of combat aircraft, offering marked and permanent advantages to the aircraft equipped with them compared to previous generation aircraft. «
Traditionally, in the West, we identify 5 generations of combat aircraft:
1st generation : Devices powered by propellers and internal combustion engines, armed with machine guns, cannons and unguided air-to-ground weapons. This generation covers combat aircraft designed between 1915 and 1945. The last 1st category aircraft to be used in operation was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider during the Vietnam War.
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