The new is the well-forgotten old: the most powerful fighters of the fourth generation

The fifth generation is faced with quite obvious difficulties inherent in any new technology. Bringing these machines to a fully operational state can take years. Thus, now, as at the end of the century, the basis of the power of the Air Force (even if we are talking about the leading Western countries) are the machines of the previous generation – the fourth. In some respects, they are in no way inferior to the same F-35.

Nowadays, several fighters of the 4 + (+) generation can be distinguished, which can make real competition to full-fledged “invisible”. Among them are American, European and Russian cars.


A major aviation event in early February is the maiden flight of a deeply modernized F-15 fighter for the United States Air Force, designated the F-15EX. It took place on February 2 at the Boeing facility in St. Louis.

It makes no sense to analyze in detail the performance characteristics of the new machine: in our time, “dry” figures about the flight range, maximum speed and ceiling say little. Much more important, for example, are measures to reduce radar signature (although the developers rarely talk about this “out loud”).

However, the F-15EX has its own distinct advantages that set it apart from any aircraft.

This is, first of all, the composition of the armament. The aircraft can carry up to 22 air-to-air missiles. This is more than any other fighter, including fifth-generation vehicles, can take: at least within the framework of existing weapon configurations. The vehicle will also be able to use a wide arsenal of air-to-surface weapons, including promising hypersonic models.

The two-seater fighter has a powerful AN / APG-82 radar with an active phased antenna array, which is probably capable of effectively detecting even stealth fighters (the issue of their detection range remains open). According to some reports, the US Air Force ultimately wants to receive about 200 new fighters. They are considered primarily as a replacement for the rapidly aging F-15C / D.

F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet

If the most powerful “four” of the US Air Force will be the modernized F-15, then Boeing presented a “gift” for the US Navy in the form of an updated version of the Super Hornet. The car made its first test flight last year. The plane that took off into the sky is similar to the “regular” F / A-18E / F: as far as can be judged, it has become something of a test bench.

Production vehicles will receive very noticeable improvements. First of all, attention is drawn to the conformal fuel tanks, which increase the combat radius. Other improvements include an updated Infrared Search and Track (IRST) outboard container and a large touchscreen display to the cockpit.

Broadly speaking, IRST is not new. However, modern technologies make it as sensitive as possible, which, for example, will make it possible to more efficiently identify inconspicuous aircraft. It should be understood that IRST Block II will never be a full-fledged replacement for radar.

Another major improvement to the F / A-18 Block III Super Hornet is the new display in the cockpit measuring 10×19 inches. It is in stark contrast to the “miniature” (by modern standards, of course) displays of early Super Hornets. In modern warfare, when the pilot has to deal with a huge amount of data, this is a fundamentally important improvement.

Dassault Rafale

French Rafale needs no introduction.

In short, the vehicle combines excellent flight performance, reduced radar signature (however, it is not a “stealth” in the classical sense) and a very wide range of weapons.

There are three versions: Rafale C (single seater land variant), Rafale M (single seater naval variant) and Rafale B (two seater land variant).

Over the course of life, the car has received many updates. One of the main ones is the modern Thales RBE2 active phased array radar. Recall that until recently, there was not a single fighter with a radar of this type in the arsenal of the Russian Aerospace Forces.

The undoubted advantage of the Rafale, which distinguishes it from the background of overseas machines, is the newest MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile, equipped with a sustainer ramjet engine, which allows maintaining the highest flight speed along the entire trajectory, up to hitting the target (flight speed missiles – more than M = 4).

The missile’s firing range is 100 kilometers. However, it must be assumed that when firing at a highly maneuverable target of the “fighter” type, the effective range will still be significantly shorter. Nonetheless, a number of Western observers consider the Meteor the most dangerous air-to-air missile and the Dassault Rafale one of the deadliest fighters on Earth.

Eurofighter Typhoon

This car can be called “neglected”.

Nevertheless, in terms of the amount of flight performance, it is (at least) not inferior to the Rafale. And, most likely, even slightly superior to the French plane.

If we talk about weapons, then the machines are similar. Typhoon, like the Dassault Rafale, can use the MBDA Meteor missile.

One of the vehicle’s features is the ability to carry Brimstone missiles. Due to its low weight (about 50 kg) and dimensions, one fighter can theoretically take up to 18 such products.

The real revolution here can be its development in the person of SPEAR3, which, among other things, has a range of up to 140 kilometers. Flight testing of the SPEAR missile demonstrators from the Eurofighter Typhoon began in 2014, and the UK Department of Defense awarded a £ 550 million contract for the purchase of SPEAR3 in January 2021.

The weak point of the Eurofighter Typhoon is the radar station. The aircraft is equipped with a relatively old CAPTOR radar. She will be replaced in the future.

Let us remind you that last year Airbus received a major contract for the installation of the Captor-E radar station with AFAR on the German Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon fighters and part of the Spanish Typhoons. Also in 2020, a contract for equipping a new radar with an active phased antenna array was signed by the British Ministry of Defense.


The most powerful and modern Russian fighter of the 4 + (+) generation is undoubtedly the Su-35S. Earlier, there was information about the modernization of the Su-30SM, which implies, in particular, the installation of the AL-41F-1S engine (the same as on the Su-35S).

However, even in this case, the Su-35S fighter will remain a more advanced machine, equipped with a relatively modern radar with a phased antenna array “N035 Irbis”, which, according to the available information, is very much superior to the Su-30SM N0011M “Bars” radar.

For all its merits, the “SM” is, in a broad sense, a “Russified” version of the export Su-30MKI: a machine that is very successful on the market, but far from new.

Among the main advantages of its successor, the Su-35S, is the advanced optical-location station OLS-35, which increases the chances of meeting the fifth generation, as well as outstanding maneuverability and excellent flight range.

One of the main “highlights” is the possibility of using the R-37M air-to-air missile, the range of which, according to some sources, reaches 300 kilometers. Previously, missiles with such indicators were carried only by Russian interceptors based on the MiG-31.

Together with the ability to carry medium-range air-to-air missiles RVV-AE (conventional analogue of the American AMRAAM), R-27T / ET with an infrared homing head, as well as R-73 short-range – the arsenal for hitting air targets is more than impressive …

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