Bigger is better: the fifth generation of wilderness walks

The phrase “elephant walk” has long taken root in the American lexicon. It means working out the control of a large number of aircraft of the same type in close formation: in this case, the takeoff of the machines is carried out with a small interval. The exercise allows you to practice the skills of pilots and technical personnel in case it is necessary to fly a large number of aircraft into the sky as soon as possible. Recently, the United States has increasingly been using the latest fifth-generation fighters in such exercises.

“Raptors” are eager to fight

In March 2019, the United States Air Force decided to once again demonstrate the potential of the first-ever fifth-generation mass-produced fighter, the F-22 Raptor. Immediately 24 fighters of the 3rd Wing of the US Air Force, which is based in Elmendorf (Alaska), went on an elephant ride. In addition to them, the E-3 Sentry early warning aircraft and the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft took part in the training.

As experts then noted, the importance of the exercise is due to the fact that the pilots of this wing will be among the first who, in case of danger, will go to the risk zone in the Pacific region. In addition, F-22 fighters are at the forefront of the American air defense of a large part of a strategically important air “shield” directed primarily towards Russia.

In a broader sense, the exercises served as a reminder to the world that the United States has long and very successfully operated what is probably the most powerful of the fifth generation serial fighters. In total, we recall that the United States produced 187 serial F-22s. To date, the production has been closed: rumors about its resumption, in all likelihood, do not correspond to the truth.

Demonstration of strength

Everyone remembers well the American-Iranian controversy caused at the beginning of last year by the assassination of Lieutenant General and Commander of the Al-Quds Special Forces in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qasem Soleimani. After growing controversy, the Americans decided to flex their muscles.

Among the demonstrations of force were exercises involving a large number of F-35A, conducted in January 2020. Then, 52 of the fifth generation F-35A Lightning II fighters of the 388th and 419th fighter wings of the US Air Force from Hill airbase (Utah) took off immediately on an elephant ride. Both wings conducted similar exercises in November 2018 with the participation of three dozen aircraft, which was also spectacular, but the simultaneous participation of 52 invisibles is more impressive than ever.

On the other hand, the large number of F-35s in one photo is less and less surprising. As of the beginning of 2021, over 600 of these machines were produced, and their total number should exceed three thousand. To date, in addition to the F-35A version for the US Air Force and the American allies, two other modifications have been put into operation – the F-35B with a short takeoff and vertical landing, and the deck-based F-35C.

Marines at the ready

The impressive exercises involving fifth-generation fighters are not only conducted by the US Air Force. In 2019, the Marine Corps showed a willingness to fly numerous F-35Bs. The exercises affected 20 aircraft of the VMFAT-501 squadron.

The exercises were held at the Beaufort Marine Air Force Base. The service said:

The safe launch and recovery of the aircraft confirms the squadron’s commitment to achieving and maintaining the highest levels of readiness to train the next generation of F-35B pilots from the United States Marine Corps and partner countries.

This “elephant ride” was the first training of its kind for the USMC F-35B. The event became an important milestone also because this version of the fighter, in terms of the sum of its indicators, is the most technically complex and expensive. It is also important to note that this aircraft will soon become the basis of the aviation wing of the British aircraft carrier strike group, based on the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth.

Together

In December last year, the pilots of the F-35 again made themselves felt. This time, the United States conducted exercises at the Eilson military base in Alaska, using 18 fifth-generation stealth fighters and 12 F-16 Fighting Falcon 354 fighter aircraft. The fighters were escorted by two KC-135 Stratotankers of the 168th National Guard Wing.

This happened shortly after Russian and Chinese bombers conducted joint patrols over the western Pacific Ocean, demonstrating the increasingly close military ties between Beijing and Moscow. A corresponding statement from the Americans says:

We are doing this despite the coronavirus, despite the extreme weather conditions, and despite the fact that this is one of the shortest days of the year.

Obviously, even in the distant future, fifth-generation fighters will have to serve side-by-side with the machines of the previous generation – the fourth. Therefore, interaction between different platforms can be one of the key aspects of the success of a given operation.

Not only the USA

China is increasingly using its new fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 fighters, which were commissioned back in 2017, in the exercises. It must be said that such a pace of development and construction of the PRC of a new fighter ten years ago seemed “fantastic”. In 2019, an interesting photo of joint flights of the J-20 was posted on the Web, which a number of observers compared with the American “elephant walks” (in total, then 15 new machines were identified).

Experts estimate the total number of J-20 built in different years at about fifty units. This includes not only the first series aircraft, but also pre-production samples and prototypes of the fifth generation fighter. Note that now there are few doubts that the Chengdu J-20 will become a truly production car. And perhaps the basis of the PRC Air Force.

Looking forward to the future

In addition to the United States and China, there is another country that produces its own fifth generation fighter. It’s Russia. However, we may not be able to see the joint flight of a large number of domestic Su-57s soon: the first serial (actually the second, since the very first serial fighter crashed last year) was received by the Aerospace Forces only in December.

Earlier, within the framework of MAKS-2019, we saw demonstration flights of four prototypes of the Su-57 fighter at once, which undoubtedly became the “highlight” of the flight program. In addition, a prototype of a fighter has recently performed flights together with an experienced strike UAV “Okhotnik”.

In any case, the real strength tests of the Su-57 are still ahead. Recall that within the framework of the contract concluded in 2019, the Russian Aerospace Forces must supply 76 Su-57 fighters by 2028. Most likely, this will not be the last batch of “invisibles” that the Ministry of Defense will receive.

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