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 AIR FORCE 100

What IS AIR FORCE 100?

On 31 March 2021, the Royal Australian Air Force will mark 100 years as an independent service. This is an important time to reflect on the enduring contribution to Australia's national security.

To celebrate their 100 year, Air Force will be promoting their campaign to:

  • honour the service and sacrifices of our people during the last 100 years,
  • engage the Australian community and demonstrate today’s highly capable force, and
  • inspire young Australians to consider the range of opportunities in a future networked force.

Royal Australian Air Force released their first Centenary video alongside Airshow 2019 which highlights Air Force’s enduring support to the nation: Then. Now. Always.

Five Generations of the Royal Australian Air Force

The idea of aircraft “generations” dates back to the 1990’s. It was first introduced as a way of grouping together stages of development and improvements in jet fighter aircraft. The term only applies to jet aircraft rather than earlier propeller fighter aircraft, and marks milestone developments in avionics, design and onboard systems. For the most part, generations are defined when technological advancements have not been incorporated into existing airframes, but have resulted in new types of aircraft being produced.

“First Generation” generally refers to subsonic fighter jets, first introduced in late World War II and spans the period from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s. This first generation of jet fighters had relatively basic onboard systems. They had no radars or other protective systems and their main armoury were cannons, unguided bombs and machine guns. First Generation jet engines had no afterburners and there were no onboard weapons guidance systems. Examples of First Generation aircraft flown by the Royal Australian Air Force in that time include the Meteor and Sabre.

Considered to be the mid 1950s to early 1960s, the second generation of jet fighters included advances in technology that allowed air-to-air radar, infrared and semi-active guided missiles. In this era, afterburning turbojet engines entered production and advances in engine and aerodynamic design allowed aircraft to reach and maintain supersonic speeds in level flight for the first time. At this time, the Royal Australian Air Force fleet included second generation aircraft like the Mirage.

The 1960s to approximately 1970 produced aircraft with increased manoeuvrability and ground attack capabilities, combined with the introduction of guided missiles. Analog avionics began to be introduced, replacing older "steam-gauge" cockpit instrumentation, plus enhancements to improve the aerodynamic performance of third-generation fighters.

This generation saw aerial engagements move beyond the visual range, with multi-role fighters supported by Doppler radar making it no longer necessary for pilots to visually acquire a target. Examples include the F4 Phantom, an aircraft introduced to the RAAF fleet as a stop-gap asset in 1970 until the F-111 aircraft were delivered in 1973 and then of course the latter type which remained in service until 2010.

Fourth Generation aircraft is the classification of jet fighters between approximately 1970 and the mid-1990s. Fourth Generation aircraft designs were heavily influenced by lessons learnt from the previous generation of combat aircraft. These jets were characterised by their multi-role configurations, meaning they could switch roles between air-to-air and air-to ground combat, unlike previous generations which were role-dedicated aircraft.

Fourth Generation fighters were equipped with sophisticated avionics and weapons systems, although long range air-to-air missiles originally thought to make dogfighting obsolete, proved less influential than expected. This led to a renewed focus on maneuverability and optimised aerodynamic design of fly-by-wire fighters. Examples include the F/A-18A/B Hornet.

The idea of a “half generation” increment was due largely to the forced reduction in military spending brought about in the decline of the Cold War. This restricted new aircraft development and resulted in this generation of aircraft from the 1990s until 2005 which were often modified fourth-generation aircraft. However, the addition of game-changing combat capability for those redesigned aircraft was significant enough to be deemed a generation of their own.

It became more cost-effective to significantly enhance aircraft capabilities, adding “stealth’, radar absorbent materials, thrust vector controlled engines, greater weapons carriage capacity and extended range. They are commonly identified by signature reduction, helmet-mounted sights, GPS guided weapons, and highly integrated systems. Examples include the F/A-18F Super Hornet.

The Fifth Generation of jet aircraft was ushered in with the introduction of the USAF Lockheed F-22 Raptor air superiority platform in 2005. This era saw the development and introduction of all-new levels of performance, stealth profiles and advanced avionics, with integrated all-digital flight systems.

From 2005 onwards, fifth-generation fighter aircraft are characterised by very low-observability including internal weapons bays, and vastly improved situational awareness through a network-centric combat environment.

This generation of aircraft was “born” networked, rather than adapted from a previous generation– which allows them to receive, share and store information to enhance capability and the battlespace picture, making Fifth Generation largely defined by their software, rather than their hardware.

Because fifth-generation aircraft operate in a network-centric combat environment, the entire Air Force must be optimised in order to gain full advantage. Examples include the F-35A.