In 2005, the United States became the first nation on earth to field an operational 5th generation fighter in the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. When you look at the F-22 compared to its 4th generation predecessors, the aircraft clearly stands out… but what exactly made it the first of a new generation, rather than a more advanced approach to the existing generation of fighters?
Generational designations often (or at least used to) come from within the aviation community itself. Each generation comes with a somewhat subjective list of capabilities that may have existed in some particular aircraft before, but become requirements across the board for fighters of the next generation.
Fighter generations are fairly subjective, so here’s how the Air Force broke down what new capabilities prompted a new generational designation:
1st Generation: Jet propulsion
2nd Generation: Swept wings, range-finding radar, and infrared-guided missiles
3rd Generation: Supersonic flight, pulse radar, and missiles that can engage opponents from beyond visual range
4th Generation and beyond: High levels of agility, some degree of sensor fusion, pulse-doppler radar, reduced radar signature, fly-by-wire, look down/shoot down missiles, and more.